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Definite article "the"
To understand the use of articles we have to understand the concepts of
Identification vs. Classification
is connected historically and conceptually to the number one.
the basic meaning of a(n) X is "single instance of the X type of thing".
depends on the pronunciation of the first sound (not letter) of the following word, with "a" preceding consonant sounds and "an" preceding vowel sounds.
is closely connected, historically and conceptually, to the demonstrative "that".
the basic meaning of "The X" is "that particular X".
All common nouns used to refer to things can be counted.
Proper nouns are easily recognizable:
start with capital letters
are mostly names of people, places, and special times
are generally used with zero article
Non-countable nouns are generally used with zero article (Ø): typically denote substances or abstract concepts.
a. Ø Santa Claus stays in Ø Greenland until Ø Christmas.
b. Ø Oil and Ø water don’t mix, but Ø milk and Ø sugar do.
c. Money can’t buy Ø happiness or Ø health.
account for 10% of words in a text.
are essential in order to make sense of how English works.
there is a high percentage of nouns occurring without any article or zero article (Ø)
Traditional descriptions tend to treat countability (or non-countability) as a fixed property of English nouns that has to be learned as an inherent grammatical feature of each noun. This doesn’t seem to be an accurate picture of how English nouns are used.
Nouns that are traditionally listed as countable will include words such as "apple" and "dog", yet these words can easily be used in contexts that are associated with non-countable forms:
a. She fed the baby a teaspoon of apple.
b. He said that dog tastes best when it is cooked with ginger.
It is also common observation that nouns usually listed as non-countable, such as "butter" and "sugar", can be found in contexts that are clearly countable:
a. There are several new butters being produced without milk.
b. Can I have two sugars, please?
Rather than say that nouns are either countable or non-countable, it may be more useful to note that the kind of thing being talked about changes in a countable context versus a non-countable context.
Singular or plural
There are nouns that look plural (with -s endings), but they are treated as singular.
a.Physics is fun and so is linguistics.
b.The news is that measles isn’t fun at all.
And there are collective nouns (which identify a group)
a. The press were predicting problems.
b. The public were ignoring them.
Other examples: class, club, committee, crowd, enemy, gang, government, staff, team
A group can be conceived as a single unit or as several individual members (with plural nouns).
a. The audience was cheering and clapping their hands.
b. Her family has decided that they can’t afford a big wedding.
It has clear boundaries
No part of the unit equals the whole.
a. I want to get a coffee/two coffees.
Ø – non- individuation
a. There was coffee all over the floor.
If an object is treated as an individual unit then more than one individual of the same type will typically be possible.
The process of individuation predicts plural forms.
a.Love is in the air.
b.Can you imagine a love like this?
It is useful to have this conceptual information about substances and abstractions as single, but it is misleading.
Classifying and Identifying
At the core of the distinction between "the" and "a(n)" is a difference in how things are being treated by the speaker (writer).
It is a process by which we name a thing (or things) as belonging to a class of objects, as a member of a category. It is signaled by the indefinite article.
a. There’s a "farmhouse" with a "fence" and an "old truck".
It is a process by which we refer to a thing (or things) as distinct from other members of the same category or class of objects.
a. Can you see "the farmhouse" with "the fence" and "the old truck"?
The definite article mostly signals that the thing is to be treated as already identified.
Classifying marks “the kind of thing(s) I’m talking about” whereas identifying marks "the specific thing(s) I’m talking about”.
The same questions can be answered by classifying or by identifying:
a. What’s making that noise?
b. It’s probably a dog outside.
c. It’s probably the dog next door.
It’s as if in "b" the question to the answer was “How would you classify it?”.
The definite article signals more than the indefinite article. Using it means that the classification has been completed because the entity has already been identified.
The indefinite article implies that the thing being classified has not already been identified.
Using "a(n)" means that you are not in position to use "the".
Classifying (an X) will most likely occur before identifying (the X):
a. We watched a cartoon about a cat and a bird in a cage.
b. The cat kept trying to get the bird out of the cage.
If the speaker has decided that the identifying function can be used, there is typically no need for classifying.
a. Did you see the cartoon about the cat and the bird in the cage?
The use of articles is a reflection of shared knowledge between the interactants in any act of ongoing communication. The speaker/writer must assess the interlocutor’s background knowledge and make a series of assumptions regarding the information he or she shares (or does not share) with the interlocutor.
When there is no sharing of knowledge, communication breakdown may occur.
a. Where’s the dessert?
b. What dessert?
c. You were supposed to bring the dessert!
To classify is also a way to make a very general statement about a thing or a person so it is the process used in general categorization.
This categorizing use of a(n), especially in describing occupations or professions, is often not recognized by second language learners who need extra help in noticing that classifying a person as "a student" or "a doctor" always includes the indefinite article.
a. Is there a telephone near here?
b. She’s a doctor and her husband is a lawyer.
c. He’s an American.
This use of the indefinite article works as a form of labeling and could be paraphrased as “one member of the class of objects with the label
or the label
”. This explains the use of articles with proper nouns.
a. There was a John Park looking for you today.
A similar process is evident in classifying objects by the name of the (probable) producer of the object, creating another context in which indefinite articles can appear with proper names.
a. I think the painting is a Picasso.
b. Do you like my new watch? It’s a Calvin Klein.
Already identified (the)
Entities that are treated as the only members of their class, in physical terms or in sociocultural terms, are referred to as if already identified. The concept of being the only member of a class naturally extends to special events (e.g. in history) or special phenomena (e.g. in geography).
a. The moon goes round the earth which goes round the sun.
b. The Pope, the President, and the Queen were all there.
c. The Civil War was extremely destructive.
d. The Pacific is bigger than the Atlantic.
Other entities can simply be treated as identified on the basis of information supplied by the speaker/writer. That is, some information following a noun is often enough to create an identified entity in a text, leading to use the definite article.
a. I’d like to find
person who made this mess.
place I’m going to describe is where I grew up.
OBS.: This pattern is often found with general nouns (
e.g. person, place, fact
) and POST-MODIFYING phrases, because they come after the noun and restrict the general noun reference to a specific reference in the text.
Other entities are treated as definite because of PRE-MODIFYING expressions. Commom examples are those expressions that indicate the end-point of a scale (
Also treated as end-points of some scale are those entities described by the superlative forms of adjectives.
start, I thought I was
first person in her thoughts.
b. I thought she was
most beautiful woman in the world.
c. And I was
end, I found myself at
bottom of her list.
There are many uses of the definite article where uniqueness is not a relevant property. It is common to treat as "already identified " many physically present entities and entities that are recognized as part of an assumed shared life experience.
a. The glass on the table in the corner must be yours.
b. The mail came while you were at the bank.
c. She always takes the bus to the store.
d. He likes to read the newspaper in the morning.
The speaker can simply mark these entities as already sufficiently identified by the noun, almost as if they are to be treated as stereotypes in a shared social world.
No differentiation required
When a boy says he goes "to Ø school by Ø bus", he is describing an event in which it is not relevant whether the entities
are classified as a single unit or identified.
This use of zero article, essentially signaling "no differentiation required", is found in a number of expressions:
a. Who would want to be in Ø prison?
b. He'd rather stay at Ø work than go to Ø church.
c. I'll be in Ø town later and we can have Ø lunch.
d. Le's go to Ø bed.
In these cases here there's a conventional implication that we're referring to kinds of activities rather locations.
A note on a new article
a. There was
guy I met in my Brazilian Literature class...
b. I watched
TV show last week...
c. Pedro had
girlfriend in Rio...
In contemporary English,
has been used as an article which has an introductory role, similar to
and does not function like
It appears at the beginning of stories and jokes where it seems to highlight someone or something that will be the topic of what follows.