English Grammar

The functions of articles

The functions of articles

The use of the the Indefinite Article

1. With countable nouns, both concrete and abstract, the indefinite article is used when we want to name an object (thing, person, animal, abstract notion), to state what kind of object is meant:

e.g. He gave her a cigarette and lighted it.

There came a tap at the door, and a small elderly man

entered the room, wearing a cloth cap.

This function may be called the nominating function. It is the main function of the indefinite article with countable nouns.

But at the same time, owing to its origin from the numeral one, the indefinite article always implies the idea of oneness and is used only before nouns in the singular (including such words as alms, barracks, bellows, works, headquarters, etc. which may be singular in meaning).

Alongside of the above mentioned structural meanings the indefinite article may have some other functions, which are to be regarded as its additional meanings (or additional functions). As will be seen, they always result from the principal function. We may trace the following additional meanings in the indefinite article.

The indefinite article may express indefiniteness, since when we just name an object it is often indefinite in our mind.

e.g. He’s got a job now.

She was going to tell us a story.

But this additional meaning is not necessarily expressed by the indefinite article. Thus we may hardly speak of the indefiniteness of the object in the following examples:

You’re a scientist and your attitude should be realistic.

I’ve a brother in Dorset and 1 could stay with him.

The indefinite article may have the classifying meaning since by naming an object we often refer it at the same time to a class of similar objects and thus contrast it to other classes of objects. This function is clearly manifest when the noun is used as a predicative or in apposition, also when it is introduced by as or like.

e.g. She is a war orphan.

I saw Ann talking with her cousin, a shy youth of twenty.

The city looked to him as brilliant as a precious stone.

She told him that he could not treat Charles like a child.

But it would be far-fetched to speak of the classifying meaning in such cases as:

He has a father whom he goes to see quite often.

We are going to a concert tonight.

By just naming an object the speaker is likely to make reference to an object that is new to the hearer. So the indefinite article is often used to introduce a new element in the sentence. Since a new element is, as a rule, important and attracts attention, a noun with the indefinite article frequently becomes the centre of communication and as such is marked by strong stress. This additional meaning expressed by the indefinite article may be called the communicating function. It is often found alongside of the main nominating function and sometimes becomes very prominent.

e.g. That evening he made a confession.

I think he is a stupid fellow. His anger had taken on a different tone.

In contrast to this, the definite article, which usually indicates that a definite object is meant and that it is not new to the hearer, often serves to show that the noun is not the centre of communication. Compare the following sentences:

The door opened and a young girl came in.

The door opened and the young girl came in.

In the first sentence we do not know who is behind the door and a young girl is the new element in the sentence. Whereas in the second sentence we already know that there was a girl behind the door and the new information contained in the sentence is that she now came in. The two variants differ in intonation: in the first sentence a young girl is marked by stronger stress whereas in the second one came in becomes more prominent.

Although the communicating function of the indefinite article is important and sometimes becomes very prominent, it is to be regarded only as an additional meaning: we may find sentences in which a noun with an indefinite article does not serve as the centre of communication and is not marked by strong stress (a) and, vice versa, a noun with a definite article marked by strong stress may become the most important element of communication (b):

a) A camel can carry heavy loads.

An engagement should come on a girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.

b) It was the first spring day.

Schumann was the composer he liked best.

When naming an object the speaker sometimes implies that any other representative of the class would do. Thus the indefinite article approaches to any in meaning:

e.g. Then he said: “1 know it’s not so easy for a woman to refuse a gift.” Under the circumstances a normal girl would be heartbroken.

but not Betty.

A boy’s first toy is very important. It colours his whole afterlife.

Occasionally the indefinite article acquires the additional meaning of a certain, which is also closely connected with its main function:

e.g. But James obscurely felt that he was committed to a line of action and must go through with it. “You’re pretty confident up to a point, aren’t you?” he asked.

The other additional meanings of the indefinite article are less important, as they are not often found and their use is, in the main, restricted to certain patterns and set phrases.

The indefinite article always implies the idea of oneness and it sometimes becomes quite prominent. The indefinite article is then said to be used with numeric force. It occurs in the following cases:

a hundred, a thousand, a minute, a mile, etc.;

after the negative not: not a word, not a trace, not a thought,etc.;

in some set phrases: one at a time, at a draught (as in: heemptied his glass at a draught), a stitch in time saves nine, etc.

In certain patterns and set phrases the indefinite article acquires the meaning of the same, as in:

They are much of a size.

We are of an age.

Birds of a feather flock together.

In the following pattern the indefinite article is said to acquire distributive force: once a month, twice a week, three times a year, etc.

It should be pointed out that all the above mentioned additional meanings of the indefinite article result from its main nominating function and from the meaning of oneness which is always implied with countable nouns. Depending on the context those meanings may or may not be expressed by the article. Sometimes more than one additional function finds its expression in the sentence. Thus in I am a teacher the classifying and the communicating meanings are clearly seen; in He bought a book indefiniteness is expressed along with the communicating function.

But it is only the nominating function alongside of the idea of oneness that is always uppermost when the indefinite article is associated with countable nouns.

2. With uncountable nouns, the indefinite article serves to bring out a special aspect of the notion expressed by the noun. In this case its function may be called aspective.

e.g. A dull burning anger rose in his chest. He had almost a supernatural courage. Her presence stirred him usually to a shy swift eagerness.

In this case the noun is usually qualified by an attribute which also brings out a special aspect, though occasionally it may be used without any attribute:

e.g. There was a warmth between them, a sense of waiting.

In its aspective function the indefinite article is devoid of the idea of oneness, which may be proved by the fact that we do not find such plurals as burning angers or supernatural courages.

The aspective use of the indefinite article is mainly characteristic of literary style. In bringing out a special aspect of the notion expressed by the noun the author usually strives for expressiveness, desiring to attract the attention of the reader to this or that particular noun. With the attention focused on the noun, the latter generally becomes the centre of communication and thus the aspective function of the indefinite article is usually found side by side with its communicating function.

3. With nouns which have no reference to the category of countabil-ity (i.e. nouns denoting unique things and notions) the indefinite article has the same meaning as with uncountable nouns: it is used in its aspective function and at the same time its communicating function becomes very prominent.

e.g. The moon hung in the sky, a young silver moon in the pale summer night.

He was sure in those days that a brilliant future was awaiting his son.

The use of the Definite Article.

1. When used with countable nouns, both concrete and abstract, the definite article has two distinct functions.

a) It may be used with singular and plural nouns to show that the noun denotes a particular object (thing, person, animal, abstract notion) or a group of objects as distinct from the others of the same kind. We may also say that the definite article serves to single out an object or several objects from all the other objects of the same class. This function is called the defining function of the definite article. e.g. Ann herself had no doubt of the reason behind Mr. March’s invitation. I called at her house on my way home one night, just after we had all received the letters asking us to dine; 1 found Ann alone. For the first time in the years 1 had known her, her courage would not answer her. As we stood on the steps, we felt the smell of fallen leaves coming from the garden.

Sometimes the demonstrative force which is inherent in the definite article owing to its origin becomes quite prominent. This occurs in a number of phrases, such as nothing of the kind, at the time, at the moment, under the circumstances, etc.

As it has been said, the definite article serves to indicate that the noun with which it is associated is not the centre of communication, i.e. that the attention of the speaker is not focused on that object. But it has also been pointed out that the definite article may be associated with a noun which is the centre of communication.

b) The definite article may also have the generic function with countable nouns.

With nouns in the singular it serves to indicate that the noun becomes the symbol of the class, that it is meant as its composite image:

e.g. The tiger has always had the reputation of being a man-eater.

There was a streak of the gambler in her.

With nouns in the plural it is used in this function only when the idea of collectivity is emphasized:

e.g. “I shan’t have time for your moral sensitivity, “he said, “until

we’ve beaten the fascists and got a decent world.”

2. With uncountable nouns the function of the definite article may be called restricting. The definite article restricts the abstract notion expressed by an uncountable noun to a concrete instance (a); it also restricts the material denoted by a concrete uncountable noun to a definite quantity, portion or to a definite locality


e.g. a) I did not wish to betray the anxiety 1 felt.

He rested in the certainty that his duty was done.

b) “Robert, “said Aunt Lin, coming in pink and indignant, “did you know that you left the fish on the hall table and : it has soaked through to the mahogany?” As we came out into the cold damp air she shivered.

3. When the definite article is associated with nouns which have no reference to the category of countability it has its defining function. It naturally refers to a definite object, as the noun denotes a thing or notion that is unique:

e.g. The moon set, and in the sky the countless stars shone with their terrifying brilliance.

We each knew that this quarrel was different from those in the past.

Absence of the Article (The Zero Article)

The absence of the article (the zero article) has only one function with common nouns and this is synonymous with the main structural meaning of the indefinite article: it is the nominating function.

This function of the absence of the article may be found with countable nouns in the plural; it is parallel to the use of the indefinite article with singular nouns. But while the indefinite article is associated with the idea of oneness, the zero article always implies more-than-oneness:

e.g. As Robert got out of the car Marion came round the corner of the house, wearing gardening gloves and a very old skirt.

When her friends came to tea, my mother would give me some pennies to buy apples or a magazine.

She sleeps very soundly. She had a splitting headache and took an aspirin and sleeping pills.

The road led across a stream and then through woods and open clearings.

Like the indefinite article, the zero article may convey some additional meanings. It may sometimes express indefiniteness and perform the classifying and the communicating functions.

The nominating function of the zero article is also found with uncountable nouns, both abstract and concrete (names of materials):

e.g. Last night I felt friendship and sympathy for Henry, but today he has become an enemy.

If he is so interested in justice he might do something about that.

Winterbourne asked for water and drank thirstily.

The place smelled of dust.

Some grammars point out the introductory function of the indefinite article and the anaphoric function of the definite article. It is not correct, however, to regard the use of the indefinite article with nouns mentioned for the first time and the use of the definite article to refer back to an object which has already been mentioned as structural meanings inherent in the articles themselves. We rather deal with certain situations here in which the nominating function of the indefinite article and the defining function of the definite article are manifest.

The above description of the various functions of articles and their significant absence may be summed up in the table.

As can be seen from the table, the use of the articles depends on the character of the noun. But in English there are many polysemantic nouns which may be countable in one meaning and uncountable in another. As a result, the functions of the articles vary in accordance with the different meanings in which a noun appears.


Countable nouns

Uncountable nouns

Nouns having no reference to the category of countability

The indefinite article

With singular nouns – the nominating function + oneness

Additional functions:

1) indefiniteness

2) classifying

3) communicating

4) any

5) a certain

6) numeric

7) the same

8) distributive

The aspective function

Additional functions:


The aspective function

Additional functions:


The definite article

With singular and plural nouns

1. the defining function

2. the generic function

The restricting function

The defining function

Absence of the article

With plural nouns – the nominating function + more-than-oneness

Additional functions:

1) indefiniteness

2) classifying

3) communicating

The nominating function

Note. The above description of the functions of articles shows that their use is built up around a number of oppositions. There arc two main types of these.

I. Oppositions based on the category of number:

This opposition is found when the article is associated with uncountable nouns or nouns having no reference to the category of countability.

We find the two above given kinds of opposition within the same function of the indefinite article and the zero article, i.e. the nominating function.

II. Oppositions based on the structural meaning of the articles:

Besides, we find one more special kind of opposition where the indefinite article in its aspective function is opposed to both the definite article and the zero article, neither of which possesses aspective force [29, c.87

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