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LINGUIST List 16.2252

Mon Jul 25 2005

Diss: Pragmatics/Semantics: Low: 'The Phenomenon ...'

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        1.    Ring Mei Han Low, The Phenomenon of the Word THE in English - discourse functions and distribution patterns

Message 1: The Phenomenon of the Word THE in English - discourse functions and distribution patterns
Date: 22-Jul-2005
From: Ring Mei Han Low <mlowacsu.buffalo.edu>
Subject: The Phenomenon of the Word THE in English - discourse functions and distribution patterns

Institution: State University of New York at Buffalo
Program: Department of Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2005

Author: Ring Mei Han Low

Dissertation Title: The Phenomenon of the Word THE in English - discourse functions and distribution patterns

Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis

Subject Language(s): English (ENG)

Dissertation Director:
Matthew S Dryer
David A Zubin

Dissertation Abstract:

This dissertation focuses on the use of the article THE in English, in
order to answer two questions that have long puzzled linguists. First, why
do speakers use the article THE in a noun phrase when they do? Second,
what elements in discourse enable the hearers to interpret the referent
denoted with THE as it is? The dissertation argues that English speakers
use the article THE to introduce a concept when it shall be conceived as a
'dependent concept' specific to the discourse world. In the meantime,
the hearers interpret the referent based on 'genre-specific' conventions
triggered by the article. It proposes that speech participants, in order
to interpret the entity denoted by the word THE in each communication,
would need a communicative assumption to state how the content of the
communication (i.e., the anticipated discourse world) may relate to
themselves and to the reality.

In addition to the above proposal, the dissertation presents two studies.
The first one reports data collected from 1417 definite noun phrases in a
corpus of various genres from 20 articles found on the Internet. It was
found that not all referents denoted with THE in English are 'anaphoric'
or 'familiar'. Approximately half of the definite noun phrases with THE
found in the corpus do not have an explicit previous mention in the
discourse (e.g., perspective related, Inferable, referents of unique
instance). The study describes various types of these noun phrases, their
frequencies, and discusses some of their characteristics in terms of
existing theories relevant to definiteness (e.g., point of view, discourse
givenness, spread activation, genres).

The second study reports data conducted from a Google web search of 1399
nouns and compares the frequencies of them occurring with the articles A
and THE, with the English demonstratives THIS and THAT, and with the
English pronouns MY, HIS, and HER. The results show that some nouns in
English are much more likely to occur with the article THE than otherwise.
They include words of certain ontological classes, such as locative
expressions, parts of inanimate objects, superlatives, and entities of
nature. The study concludes that when contextual knowledge becomes
secondary, ontological knowledge and grammatical heuristics play a heavy
role in the interpretation of noun phrases with THE.

The dissertation contains eight chapters. Chapter 1 is the introduction.
Chapter 2 provides discussions on previous research on definiteness and
accessibility. Chapter 3 discusses the communicative function of THE in
unpredictable definite noun phrases and introduces the model of Discourse
World Assumption, which is discussed in terms of different communicative
assumptions shared by the speech participants. Chapter 4 discusses the
function of iconicity and the occurrence or absence of the in NPs that are
predictably definite. Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 present a frequency survey
of the use of the in natural discourse, identify the different contexts in
which the article is used, and discuss various types of information that
are involved in the interpretation of definite referents. Chapter 7
presents an Internet search study that compares the frequencies of the
article the, other pre-nominal elements and a set of nouns occur after
them. Finally, Chapter 8 concludes the investigation.

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