A is for Articles (2)

24 01 2010

In the previous post on articles  – A is for articles (1) – I focused mainly on the indefinite article and attempted to correct the common misconception that the referents of a/an are both indefinite and non-specific. It’s possible, I argued, that something can be indefinite but also specific.

So what is definiteness, then? What makes a noun definite, and therefore eligible for a the in front of it? The most succinct explanation, for me, comes from M.A.K. Halliday:

The means ‘the [noun] in question is identifiable; but this will not tell you how to identify it – the information is somewhere around, where you can recover it.’ So whereas this train means ‘you know which train: – the one near me’, and my train means ‘you know which train: – the one I own’, the train means simply ‘you know which train’

(An Introduction to Functional Grammar, 1985, p. 161).

“The information is somewhere around where you can identify it”. What does Halliday mean by “somewhere around”?  There are two places that information can be “somewhere around”: in the shared world of the speakers (or reader and writer), i.e. the context; or in the shared world of the immediate text , i.e. the co-text. It is the interdependence of definite-ness and context that means that the definite article can only be taught, explained and practised in contexts that are normally larger than a sentence. It is less a grammatical item than a feature of discourse – and also of pragmatics. That is to say, its use can only really be explained by reference to the shared knowledge of speaker and listener (or reader and writer).

On the MA program I teach, I use this text (a translation of a 17th century Japanese poem) to present article usage.

I expected to see only pink blossoms

          but a gentle spring snow has fallen

and the cherry trees are wearing a white coat.


I ask these three questions:

1. Why is there no article (i.e. zero article) with pink blossoms?

2. Why a gentle spring snow and not gentle spring snow?

3. Why the cherry trees and not cherry trees?

Everything you need to know about the English article system is implicated in the answers to those three questions!