English Grammar

Article determination

Article determination

The Article is a determining unit of a specific nature accompanying the noun in communicative collocation. Its special character is clearly seen against the background of determining words of half-notional semantics [50, c. 179]. Whereas the function of the determiners such as this, any, some is to explicitly interpret the referent of the noun in relation to other objects or phenomena of a like kind, the semantic purpose of the article is to specify the nounal referent, as it were, altogether unostentatiously, to define it in the most general way, without any explicitly expressed contrasts.

This becomes obvious when we take the simplest examples ready at hand. Cf.: Will you give me this pen, Willy? (i.e. the pen that I am pointing out, not one of your choice.) – Will you give me the pen, please? (i.e. simply the pen from the desk, you understand which). Any blade will do, I only want it for scratching out the wrong word from the type-script. (i.e. any blade of the stock, however blunt it -may be.) – Have you got something sharp? I need a penknife of’ a blade. (i.e. simply a blade, if not a knife, without additional implications.) Some woman called in your absence, she didn’t give her name (i.e. a woman strange to me). – A woman called while you were out, she left a message (i.e. simply a woman, without a further connotation.)

Another peculiarity of the article, as different from the determiners in question, is that, in the absence of a determiner, the use of the article with the noun is quite obligatory, in so far as the cases of non-use of the article are subject to no less definite rules than the use of it.

Taking into consideration these peculiar features of the article, the linguist is called upon to make a sound statement about its segmental status in the system of morphology. Namely, his task is to decide whether the article is a purely auxiliary element of a special grammatical form of the noun which functions as a component of a definite morphological category, or it is a separate word, i.e. a lexical unit in the determiner word set, if of a more abstract meaning than other determiners.

The problem is a vexed one; it has inspired an intensive research activity in the field, as well as an animated discussion with various pros and cons affirmed, refuted and re-affirmed. In the course of these investigations, however, many positive facts about articles have been established, which at present enables an observer, proceeding from the systemic principle in its paradigmatic interpretation, to expose the status of the article with an attempt at demonstrative conviction.

To arrive at a definite decision, we propose to consider the properties of the English articles at four successive stages, beginning with their semantic evaluation as such, then adding to the obtained data a situational estimation of their uses, thereafter analysing their categorial features in the light of the oppositional theory, and finally concluding the investigation by a paradigmatic generalization.

A mere semantic observation of the articles in English, i.e. the definite article the and the indefinite article a/an, at once discloses not two but three meaningful characterizations of the nounal referent achieved by their correlative functioning, namely: one rendered by the definite article, one rendered by the indefinite article, and one rendered by the absence (or non-use) of the article. Let us examine them separately.

The definite article expresses the identification or individualization of the referent of the noun: the use of this article shows that the object denoted is taken in its concrete, individual quality. This meaning can be brought to explicit exposition by a substitution test. The test consists in replacing the article used in a construction by a demonstrative word, e.g. a demonstrative determiner, without causing a principal change in the general implication of the construction. Of course, such an “equivalent” substitution should be understood in fact as nothing else but analogy: the difference in meaning between a determiner and an article admits of no argument, and we pointed it out in the above passages. Still, the replacements of words as a special diagnostic procedure, which is applied with the necessary reservations and according to a planned scheme of research, is quite permissible. In our case it undoubtedly shows a direct relationship in the meanings of the determiner and the article, the relationship in which the determiner is semantically the more explicit element of the two. Cf.:

But look at the apple-tree! – But look at this apple-tree! The town lay still in the Indian summer sun. – That town lay still in the Indian summer sun. The water is horribly hot. – This water is horribly hot. It’s the girls who are to blame. – It’s those girls who are to blame.

The justification of the applied substitution, as well as its explanatory character, may be proved by a counter-test, namely, by the change of the definite article into the indefinite article, or by omitting the article altogether [50, c.181] The replacement either produces a radical, i.e. “non-equivalent” shift in the meaning of the construction, or else results in a grammatically unacceptable construction. Cf.: … – Look at an apple-tree! – Look at apple-tree! … – A water is horribly hot. – Water is horribly hot.

The indefinite article, as different from the definite article, is commonly interpreted as referring the object denoted by the noun to a certain class of similar objects; in other words, the indefinite article expresses a classifying generalization of the nounal referent, or takes it in a relatively general sense. To prove its relatively generalizing functional meaning, we may use the diagnostic insertions of specifying-classifying phrases into the construction in question; we may also employ the transformation of implicit comparative constructions with the indefinite article into the corresponding explicit coparative constructions. Cf.:

We passed a water-mill. – We passed a certain water-mill. It is a very young country, isn’t it? – It is a very young kind of country, isn’t it? What an arrangement! – What sort of arrangement! This child is a positive nightmare. – This child is positively like a nightmare.

The procedure of a classifying contrast employed in practical textbooks exposes the generalizing nature of the indefinite article most clearly in many eases of its use. E.g.:

A door opened in the wall. – A door (not a window) opened in the wall. We saw a flower under the bush. – We saw a flower (not a strawberry) under the bush.

As for the various uses of nouns without an article, from the semantic point of view they all should be divided into two types. In the first place, there are uses where the articles are deliberately omitted out of stylistical considerations. We see such uses, for instance, in telegraphic speech, in titles and headlines, in various notices. E.g.:

Telegram received room reserved for week-end. (The text of a telegram.) Conference adjourned until further notice. (The text of an announcement.) Big red bus rushes food to strikers. (The title of a newspaper article.)

The purposeful elliptical omission of the article in cases like that is quite obvious, and the omitted articles may easily be restored in the constructions in the simplest “back-directed” refilling procedures.

Cf. – The telegram is received, a room is reserved for the weekend. … – The conference is adjourned until further notice. … – A big red bus rushes food to the strikers.

Alongside free elliptical constructions, there are cases of the semantically unspecified non-use of the article in various combinations of fixed type, such as prepositional- phrases (on fire, at hand, in debt, etc.), fixed verbal collocations (take place, make use, cast anchor, etc.), descriptive coordinative groups and repetition groups (man and wife, dog and gun, day by day, etc.), and the like. These cases of traditionally fixed absence of the article are quite similar to the cases of traditionally fixed uses of both indefinite and definite articles (cf.: in a hurry, at a loss, have a look, give a start, etc.; In the main, out of the question, on the look-out, etc.).

Outside the elliptical constructions and fixed uses, however, we know a really semantic absence of the article with the noun. It is this semantic absence of the article that stands in immediate meaningful correlation with the definite and indefinite articles as such.

As is widely acknowledged, the meaningful non-uses of the article are not homogeneous; nevertheless, they admit of a very explicit classification founded on the countability characteristics of the noun. Why countability characteristics? For the two reasons. The first reason is inherent in the nature of the noun itself: the abstract generalization reflected through the meaningful non-use of the article is connected with the suppression of the idea of the number in the noun. The second reason is inherent in the nature of the article: the indefinite article which plays the crucial role in the semantic correlation in question reveals the meaning of oneness within its semantic base, having originated from the indefinite pronoun one, and that is why the abstract use of the noun naturally goes with the absence of the article.

The essential points of the said classification are three in number.

First. The meaningful absence of the article before the countable noun in the singular signifies that the noun is taken in an abstract sense, expressing the most general idea of the object denoted. This meaning, which may be called the meaning of “absolute generalization”, can be demonstrated by inserting in the tested construction a chosen generalizing modifier (such as in general, in the abstract, in the broadest sense). Cf.:

Law (in general) begins with the beginning of human society. Steam-engine (in general) introduced for locomotion a couple of centuries ago has now become obsolete.

Second. The absence of the article before the uncountable noun corresponds to the two kinds of generalization: both relative and absolute. To decide which of the two meanings is realized in any particular case, the described tests should be carried out alternately. Cf.:

John laughed with great bitterness (that sort of bitterness – relative generalization). The subject of health (in general – absolute generalization) was carefully avoided by everybody. Coffee (a kind of beverage served at the table – relative generalization) or tea, please? Coffee (in general – absolute generalization) stimulates the function of the heart.

Third. The absence of the article before the countable noun in the plural, likewise, corresponds to both kinds of generalization, and the exposition of the meaning in each case can be achieved by the same semantic tests. Cf.:

Stars, planets and comets (these kinds of objects: relative generalization) are different celestial bodies (not terrestrial bodies: relative generalization). Wars (in general: absolute generalization) should be eliminated as means of deciding international disputes.

To distinguish the demonstrated semantic functions of the non-uses of the article by definition, we may say that the absence of the article with uncountable nouns, as well as with countable nouns in the plural, renders the meaning of “uncharacterized generalization”, as different from the meaning of “absolute generalization”, achieved by the absence of the article with countable nouns in the singular.

So much for the semantic evaluation of the articles as the first stage of our study.

Passing to the situational assessment of the article uses, we must point out that the basic principle of their differentiation here is not a direct consideration of their meanings, but disclosing the informational characteristics that the article conveys to its noun in concrete contextual conditions. Examined from this angle, the definite article serves as an indicator of the type of nounal information “which is presented as the “facts already known”, i.e. as the starting point of the communication. In contrast to this, the indefinite article or the meaningful absence of the article introduces the central communicative nounal part of the sentence, i.e. the part rendering the immediate informative data to be conveyed from the speaker to the listener. In the situational study of syntax the starting point of the communication is called its “theme”, while the central informative part is called its “rheme”.

In accord with the said situational functions, the typical syntactic position of the noun modified by the definite article is the “thematic” subject, while the typical syntactic position of the noun modified by the indefinite article or by the meaningful absence of the article is the “rhematic” predicative. Cf:.

The day (subject) was drawing to a close, the busy noises of the city (subject) were dying down. How to handle the situation was a big question (predicative). The sky was pure gold (predicative) above the setting sun.

It should be noted that in many other cases of syntactic use, i.e. non-subjective or non-predicative, the articles reflect the same situational functions. This can be probed by reducing the constructions in question on re-arrangement lines to the logically “canonized” link-type constructions.

If you would care to verify the Incident (object), pray do so. -If you would care the incident (subject) to be verified, pray have it verified. I am going to make a rather strange request (object) to you. – What I am going to make is a rather strange request (predicative) to you. You are talking nonsense (object), lad. – What you are talking, lad, is nonsense (predicative).

Another essential contextual-situational characteristic of the articles is their immediate connection with the two types of attributes to the noun. The first type is a “limiting” attribute, which requires the definite article before the noun; the second type is a “descriptive” attribute, which requires the indefinite article or the meaningful absence of the article before the noun. Cf.:

The events chronicled in this narrative took place some four years ago. (A limiting attribute) She was a person of strong will and iron self-control. (A descriptive attribute) He listened to her story with grave and kindly attention. (A descriptive attribute)

The role of descriptive attributes in the situational aspect of articles is particularly worthy of note in the constructions of syntactic “convergencies”, i.e. chained attributive-repetitional phrases modifying the same referent from different angles. Cf.:

My longing for a house, a fine and beautiful house, such a house I could never hope to have, flowered into life again.

We have now come to the third stage of the undertaken analysis of the English articles, namely to their consideration in the light of the oppositional theory. The oppositional examination of any grammatically relevant set of lingual objects is of especial importance from the point of view of the systemic conception of language, since oppositions constitute the basis of the structure of grammatical paradigms.

Bearing in mind the tacts established at the two previous stages of observation, it is easy to see that oppositionally, the article determination of the noun should be divided into two binary correlations connected with each other hierarchically.

The opposition of the higher level operates in the whole system of articles. It contrasts the definite article with the noun against the two other forms of article determination of the noun, i.e. the indefinite article and the meaningful absence of the article. In this opposition the definite article should be interpreted as the strong member by virtue of its identifying and individualizing function, while the other forms of article determination should be interpreted as the weak member, i.e. the member that leaves the feature in question (“identification”) unmarked.

The opposition of the lower level operates within the article subsystem that forms the weak member of the upper opposition. This opposition contrasts the two types of generalization, i.e, the relative generalization distinguishing its strong member (the indefinite article plus the meaningful absence of the article as its analogue with uncountable nouns and nouns in the plural) and the absolute, or “abstract” generalization distinguishing the weak member of the opposition (the meaningful absence of the article).

The described oppositional system can be shown on the following diagram (see Fig. 2).

It is the oppositional description of the English articles that involves the interprctation of the article non-use as the zero form of the article, since the opposition of the positive exponent of the feature to the negative exponent of the feature (i.e. its absence) realizes an important part of the integral article determination semantics. As for the heterogeneity of functions displayed by the absence of the article, it by no means can be taken as a ground for denying the relevance or expediency of introducing the notion of zero in the article system. As a matter of fact, each of the two essential meanings of this dialectically complex form is clearly revealed in its special oppositional correlation and, consequently, corresponds to the really existing lingual facts irrespective of the name given to the form by the observer.

The best way of demonstrating the actual oppositional value of the articles on the immediate textual material is to contrast them in syntactically equivalent conditions in pairs. Cf. the examples given below.

Identical nounal positions for the pair “the definite article – the indefinite article”: The train hooted (that train). – A train hooted (some train).

Correlative nounal positions for the pair “the definite article – the absence of the article”: I’m afraid the oxygen is out (our supply of oxygen). – Oxygen is necessary for life (oxygen in general, life in general).

Correlative nounal positions for the pair “the indefinite article – the absence of the article”: Be careful, there is a puddle under your feet (a kind of puddle). – Be careful, there is mud on the ground (as different from clean space).

Finally, correlative nounal positions for the easily neutralized pair “the zero article of relative generalization – the zero article of absolute generalization”: New information should be gathered on this subject (some information). – Scientific information should be gathered systematically in all fields of human knowledge (information in general).

On the basis of the oppositional definition of the article it becomes possible to explicate the semantic function of the article determination of nouns for cases where the inherent value of the article is contrasted against the contrary semantic value of the noun or the nounal collocation.

In particular, the indefinite article may occasionally be used with a nounal collocation of normally individualizing meaning, e.g.:

Rodney Harrington laughed out loud as he caught a last glimpse of Allison Mackenzie and Norman Page in his rear-vision mirror (Gr. Metalious). After all, you’ve got a best side and a worst side of yourself and it’s no good showing the worst side and harping on it (A. Christie).

Conversely, the definite article may occasionally be used with a nounal collocation of normally descriptive meaning, e.g.:

Ethel still went in the evenings to bathe in the silent pool (S. Maugham).

The indefinite article may occasionally be used with a unique referent noun, e.g.:

Ted Latimer from beyond her murmured: “The sun here isn’t a real sun” (A. Christie).

The zero article may occasionally be used with an ordinary concrete noun the semantic nature of which stands, as it were, in sharp contradiction to the idea of uncountable generalization, e.g.:

The glasses had a habit of slipping down her button nose which did not have enough bridge to hold them up (S.M. Disney). He went up a well-kept drive to a modern house with a square roof and a good deal of window (A. Christie).

In all these and similar cases, by virtue of being correlated with semantic elements of contrary nature, the inherent categorial meanings of the articles appear, as it were, in their original, pure quality. Having no environmental support, the articles become intensely self-dependent in the expression of their categorial semantics, and, against the alien contextual background, traces of transposition can be seen in their use.

Having established the functional value of articles in oppositional assessment, we can now, in broader systemic contraposition, probe the correlation of the meanings of articles with the meanings of functional determiners. As a result of this observation, within the system of the determiners two separate subsets can be defined, one of which is centred around the definite article with its individualizing semantics (this – these, that – those, my, our, your, his, her, its, their), and the other one around the indefinite article with its generalizing semantics (another, some, any, every, no). The type of the division is such as to show the integration of the article meanings into the total semantic volume of the determiners. In other words, the observation inevitably leads us to the conclusion that the article determination of the noun as a specific grammatical category remains valid also in such cases when the noun is modified not by the article itself, but by a seminotional determiner. This is clearly seen in equivalency confrontations such as the following:

But unhappily the wife wasn’t listening. – But unhappily his wife wasn’t listening.

The whispering voices caught the attention of the guards. – Those whispering voices caught their attention.

What could a woman do in a situation like that? – What could any woman do in that sort of situation?

At least I saw interest in her eyes. – At least I saw some interest in her eyes.

Not a word had been pronounced about the terms of the document. – No word had been pronounced about those terms.

The demonstration of the organic connection between the articles and seminotional determiners, in its turn, makes it possible to disclose the true function of the grammatical use of articles with proper nouns. E.g.:

“This,” said Froelich, “is the James Walker who wrote “The Last of the Old Lords'” (M. Bradbury). Cf.: This is the same James Walker.

I came out to Iraq with a Mrs. Kelsey (A. Christie). Cf.: The woman was a certain Mrs. Kelsey.

It was like seeing a Vesuvius at the height of its eruption. Cf.: The sight looked to us like another Vesuvius.

“I prophesy a wet August,” said Old Moore Abinger (M. Dickens). Cf.: Next August will be a wet month, unlike some other Augusts in retrospect.

In the exemplified grammatical uses transpositional features are revealed similar to those the article acquires when used with a noun characterized by a contrary semantic base. On the other hand, the analysis of these cases clearly stamps the traditional proper name combinations with embedded articles, both of the onomastic set (Alexander the Great, etc.) and the toponymic set (The Hague, etc.) as lexicalized collocations that only come into contact with the periphery of grammar.

The essential grammatical features of the articles exposed in the above considerations and tests leave no room for misinterpretation at the final, generalizing stage of analysis.

The data obtained show that the English noun, besides the variable categories of number and case, distinguishes also the category of determination expressed by the article paradigm of three grammatical forms: the definite, the indefinite, the zero. The paradigm is generalized for the whole system of the common nouns, being transpositionally outstretched also into the system of proper nouns. Various cases of asymmetry in the realization of this paradigm (such as the article determination of certain nouns of the types singularia tantum and pluralia tantum), similar to, and in connection with the expression of the category of number, are balanced by suppletive collocations. Cf.: 0 progress – a kind of progress, some progress – the progress; 0 news – an item of news – the news, etc.

The semi-notional determiners used with nouns in the absence of articles, expose the essential article meanings as in-built in their semantic structure.

Thus, the status of the combination of the article with the noun should be defined as basically analytical, the article construction as such being localized by its segmental properties between the free syntactic combination of words (the upper bordering level) and the combination of a grammatical affix with a notional stem in the morphological composition of an indivisible word (the lower bordering level). The article itself is a special type of grammatical auxiliary.[41, c. 164]

The pronunciation of the articles

The pronunciation of the articles and the spelling of the indefinite article depend upon the initial sound of the following word. The indefinite article is spelled as a before consonant and as an before vowel sounds. When stressed it is pronounced respectively as [ei] or [am]. However, since the articles are usually unstressed, the pronunciation of the indefinite article is generally reduced to the neutral vowel [?] before consonants, and to [n] before vowel sounds, which depends entirely on the pronunciation and not the spelling of the following word, as can be seen in the table below.

[?] [?n]

a dog an apple

a house an hour

a European an eagle

a unit an uncle

a year an x-ray

a manuscript an MP

The definite article is pronounced as [?i:] when stressed. When unstressed, it is pronounced as [??] before consonants and [?i] before vowels:

[??] [?i]

the dog the apple

the house the hour

the European the x-ray

the unit the uncle

the manuscript the MP

Since the article is the opening element of a noun phrase, it is placed before the noun it refers to or before all the other noun premodifiers. The exceptions to this rule are as follows:

a) the definite article may be preceded by the predeterminers all and

Are you going to cook all the cakes yourself? Both the answers were good.

b) the indefinite article may be preceded by the predeterminers what,
such, quite:

What a sight I am in this hat!

You were such a queen, and I was such a nothing!

You are quite a scholar.

c) the indefinite article is placed after adjectives preceded by the adverbs too, as, so:

That was too difficult a problem for the child to solve. It’s as good an excuse as any for breaking it up. I’ve never seen so miserable a creature as Jane was at the moment [46, c.84].

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