LINGUIST List 13.1363

Wed May 15 2002

Sum: Update: Definite Articles

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Alena Kandratsenka, "looking for examples with articles"

Message 1: "looking for examples with articles"

Date: Mon, 13 May 2002 20:55:23 +0100 (BST)
From: Alena Kandratsenka <>
Subject: "looking for examples with articles"

Thanks to everyone who answered my question !

My paper is coming to an end and soon I will be able to share it with you.

I would especially like to thank people who send their works. Like that I could read 
the most recent papers in this field. Actually I got very interested in the paper by 
Richard Epstein (Richard Epstein, "The definite article, accessibility, and the 
construction of discourse referents", in _Cognitive Linguistics_, vol. 12, no. 4 
(2002), pp. 333-378.)

I would also like to thank Adam Glaz, who sent me bibliography of his book (2002, 
still in print, The Dynamics of Meaning. Explorations in the Conceptual Domain of 
EARTH, to be published by UMCS, i.e. Maria Curie-Sklodowska University Press).

Thanks to Eitan Grossman and Clare Galaway!

A list of repsonses follows:

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I guess you are looking for examples where "the" appears but many 
theories would suggest the article should be "a".
You may be interested in these examples:

"John is THE son of a rich banker"

[Note that the banker is indefinite and there is no implication that the 
banker has only one son. The only explanation of this phenomena I can 
think of is that is related to the following example]

"John swam to THE bank of the river"

[This example is covered by the notion of multiple "identical" subparts 
of an object. Other examples include "the wall (of a room)" and even 
sometimes body parts as in "Mary kicked John in the knee"]

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On Mon, 22 Apr 2002, LINGUIST List wrote:
> Date: Fri, 19 Apr 2002 19:15:09 +0300
> From: "Alena Kandratsenka" <>
> Subject: Re: Qs: Articles, Political Correctness & Lang Use
> I am a student from Minsk State Linguistics University and I am doing a
> research on the definite article. I am currently seeking for examples where
> the use of the definite article can't be explained from the point of view of
> familiarity or identifiability. If somebody came across such instances, I
> would be very interested to receive them.
> A few examples you might find interesting:
> She reads the newspaper every day. (newspaper unspecified; cf. German
> _Sie liest jeden Tag die Zeitung_, where position of _die Zeitung_ 'the newspaper'
> after _jeden Tag_ 'every day' reveals that it is unspecified.)

The usual one for him or perhaps for us, not just any newspaper at all.

> He always misses the bus. (Again, bus unspecified: he misses all buses.)
Or, rather, whichever one he tries to catch.
> The child still wets the bed. (Whatever bed he happens to be in)
> This is a fairly common phenomenon
> Eg. You telephone a friend in another town - he is out
> His flat-mate says 'He's just gone to *the pub*'
> OR ' the hospital/the supermarket/the beach ....etc.'

Again, the usual one in the context and the speaker knows which.

> More -
> we're visiting my mother. we're going on THE TRAIN / THE BUS / THE

The normal route for the purpose.

> In the first set of examples, you don't know where these places are and
> can't identify them.

But the speaker and the person who went can.

> This is a feature of oblique cases such as the locative. They could be
> seen as only weakly referential. In other words they don't refer strongly
> to a particular object, more a general concept. this is particularly so in
> the second set - where you can also say 'BY TRAIN/BY BUS' etc. missing out
> the article altogether.

But focusing on the mode of transit, rather than a particular route.

> Another type is where the context predicts the existence of something - eg
> beware of THE DOG, where's THE POST OFFICE?

> Another type is where the adjective requires 'the' or in particular
> fixed phrases such as 'we both attended THE SAME SCHOOL'
> In idiomatic expressions of the type 'they sell it by the metre' or 'she
> drinks it by the litre', you can't really explain the use of the definite
> article in terms of identifiability or familiarity.

In all these cases the distinction is more or less one of specificity.
Or it might be one of contextual identifiability. For example, given a
room, any room, one can refer to the closet. Referring to a closet
indicates the possibility of several, or a lack of expectation of a
closet. Given an automobile one can refer to the (steering) wheel, the
tires, etc. This is not very different - if it is at all - from
inalienable possession or part/whole possession. In some European
languages one can refer to kin (mother, etc.) with a definite article in
this way, though in English one needs the possessive pronoun.
I see to recall an article in Language about this sort of contextual
definite article from the 1970s or 1980s. I looked at it some time back
and don't recall the details of the citation - not even the author.
In each of the examples above you can learn something about the value of
the definite article, by considering what happens to the meaning when it
is replaced by an indefinite one, or, where possible, by the absence of
one (usually in locatives as mentioned).
You might want to look at Joseph Greenberg's article on how languages
acquire gender marking, in the series Universals of Human Language, ed. by
Greenberg et al. It describes a process of weakening of demonstratives
via definite and other patterns of articles, which, combined with
morphologization, leads to gender marking if the original system
distinguished gender in a way that is preserved. The discussion of
different patterns of articles is relevant here, though I'm not sure there
isn't something similar, perhaps better available that is more
theoretical, or more purely synchronic. I believe he refers to specific
and generic articles in addition to definite ones.

John Koontz

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Hi. Just a little information in case you might be misled. The German
example in your first response is not what it's said to be:

Sie liest jeden Tag die Zeitung/Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/Die

In fact *Sie liest die Zeitung jeden Tag is unacceptable, and probably
ungrammatical. The issue is adverb placement, not definiteness. As far as I
know the only alternative is topicalising 'day', and the definite article
would remain:

Jeden Tag liesst sie die Zeitung.

Yours, Roger Lass

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Dear Alena Kandratsenka,

As a native English speaker, I have always been stumped by:

I have a cold

I have the flu.

Nor have I been able to find a clear explanation for this.

Good luck!

Kristina Beckman

Univeristy of Arizona

Tucson, Arizona

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Dear Alena,

Unfortunately I hadn�t noticed the point of your question about definite
articles when it appeared (,
so let me add a few comments to your Summary


As far as I know, there is a great measure of agreement between the
various West European languages. It can be asked to what extent this is due
to universal factors acting in a parallel way in various languages) and to
what extent it is an areal phenomenon (common feature of neighboring
languages due to mutual contact), as was the rise of the articles itself.
(Below, I'll take French examples because that's my language, but I guess
many of them would be valid in English, too.)
I am not convinced by the notion of "expletive article". To my mind this
is only a misleading way of saying "unexplained article".
When you say "prendre le bus" (to take the bus), you do not mean choosing
one bus rather than another bus, but choosing bus rather than taxi, private
vehicule, walking, etc. That is, "bus", in this case, does not refer to an
object, a vehicule, but a means of transportation, and it refers to only one
means of transportation among several. If you are going to a definite place,
there is usually one standard way of going there by bus, and it is assumed
that you will take the next bus, or the first bus that reaches the bus
station after you, so that the vehicle you will take is practically uniquely
determined. (Perhaps I am giving two different explanations side by side!)
Well, you may now ask why we use no article in "aller en bus" (to go by bus)


He always misses the bus: This sentence is in any case an exaggeration and
cannot be taken literally (it is not really "he misses all buses"). When you
miss a bus you usually take the next one; that is, you usually do not miss
the next one. The real meaning of 'always' is something like 'very often',
'characteristically often', and the real meaning of "the bus" is "the bus he
wants to take" (or "the bus he should have taken to get to school on time",
etc.), which probably explains the use of the definite article.
The child still wets the bed. In French usually "Il fait encore pipi au
lit" (he still makes wee wee in the bed), or more formally perhaps "L'enfant
mouille encore son lit" (the child still wets his bed). Whatever bed it is,
it is "his bed" (either usually or for the night), or "the bed he sleeps in"
(cf. the preceding example, with missing the bus), hence the definite

She reads the newspaper every day. If we said "Elle lit un journal chaque
jour" (She reads a newspaper every day), it seems to me that that would
imply just one newspaper per day, but probably every day a different one. So
perhaps the use of the definite article implies that it is every day the
same journal.

The examples given by Clare Gallaway are worth a closer examination. My
suggestions above are not always sufficient. E.g. 'He's just gone to the
pub': perhaps that's the next pub, or his usual pub, thus in principle one
that is uniquely determined in the mind of the speaker - though possibly
unknown to the hearer. However, I guess that 'the pub' is the usual phrase
even in other cases. I wonder in what circumstances one would say "He's gone
to a pub" - that might help determine the meaning of "he pub". Other
examples are easier: Beware of the dog = the dog we have in our house.

Where's the post office = the next post office.

The problem you bring up about "the" also presents itself with
possessives: you can say "my sister", "ma soeur", even if you have two
sisters and do not specify which one you are talking about; or "You're
stepping on my foot". (With body parts, French does not typically use the
possessives, but rather the definite article + a personal pronoun: "Vous me
marchez sur le pied" 'you to-me walk on the foot', "Il s'est cass� la jambe"
'he to-himself has broken the leg', or, less frequently "Il s'est cass� une
jambe", 'a leg'.).

There are probably cases of analogy. E.g. "d�ner au restaurant" (take
dinner at the restaurant; aller d�ner au restaurant, go to the restaurant
for dinner) can be used no matter whether we already know what restaurant it
is or when we still have to choose one: possibly the use of the definite
article in the second case is analogical after the former case, because the
difference between the two situations is not considered as relevant (we can
also say "d�ner dehors" = take dinner outside, i.e. go out for dinner).
These were a few intuitions certainly the discussions in the references
you have been given are based on a good corpus of examples and on the
reactions of various native speakers.

Best regards,



(Mr.) R�my Viredaz
1, rue Chandieu
CH - 1202 Gen�ve

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Dear Alena,

If we compare your examples with the counterparts
containing 'a', we may figure out the information 'the' carries.

She reads the newspaper every day.

She reads a newspaper every day.

With 'a', the sentence implies that she reads different newspapers
randomly,such as Times, N.Y. Times etc. Therefore, 
'the newspaper' refer to the same newspaper published by the same company.

He always misses the bus.

He always misses a bus.

'the' implies the bus of the same line.

The child still wets the bed.

The child still wets a bed.

'the bed' means 'his bed'.

I am interested in your topic. If you have some paper or other explantion 
please let me know.


Lu Bingfu

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I can send you copies of two papers I wrote on the apprently 
inconsistent use of the definite article and capitalization in 
English (the papers are both in Polish). I can send them as hard 
copies or via e-mail as Word files. I then reworked one of the 
papers into the Appendix to my book, which is now in print (this 
one is in English). Would you be interested? Let me know.

Adam Glaz

UMCS, Lublin, Poland

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