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Review of  On Definiteness

Reviewer: Svetlana Kurteš
Book Title: On Definiteness
Book Author: Andrew Chesterman
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 18.274

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AUTHOR: Chesterman, Andrew
TITLE: On Definiteness
SUBTITLE: A Study with Special Reference to English and Finnish
SERIES: Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, 56
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2005 ISBN: 0521022878

Reviewed by Svetlana Kurtes, University of Cambridge, UK

The volume originally started as the author's Ph.D. thesis presented at the
University of Reading. The current version, a digitally printed paperback
edition of the volume first published in 1991, comprises nine chapters: 1)
Introduction; 2) English articles: the research tradition; 3) English
article usage; 4) A unified description of the English articles; 5)
Finnish: no articles; 6) Finnish species; 7) The status of definiteness in
Finnish; 8) English and Finnish contrasted; 9) Wider perspective.
References. Subject Index. Author Index.


Chapters 2-4 deal with the situation in English. More specifically, Chapter
2 brings together a range of the research traditions, pointing out their
strengths, but also the issues they left unresolved, such as: Is
definiteness a binary opposition? What do definite and indefinite mean? How
many articles are there? What does 'no article' mean? What is the
individual meaning of each article?

Broadly speaking, modern research into the English articles falls into two
major categories – one approach, mainly philosophical, starting with
Russell (1905), focuses on the meaning of definiteness and the ways it is
grammatically encoded, while the other approach is largely in the
generative tradition, looking into the rules that will generate the correct
article in a given context. The author, however, proposes the third
approach that ''will start with the articles themselves, their distribution
and meaning, and also with the question of which forms should actually
count as articles'' (p. 10).

The author gives a succinct overview of a number of classic studies on
definiteness, such as Hjelmslev (1928), Christophersen (1939) and Jespersen
(1949), and a few more modern contributions, such as Yotsukura (1970),
Chafe (1970), Dahl (1975), Lyons (1975), Carlson (1977), Hawkins (1978),
etc. He asserts that main research traditions make it clear ''that no
unified theory of the English article is yet available'' (p. 39). Most of
the mentioned theories observe definiteness from the point of view of
reference, which is inadequate to cover all uses of the articles, leaving
out their non-referential usage. Definiteness is also mainly seen as a
binary opposition, +/- definite or +/- determined, with very few exceptions
where the concept was analysed as a scalar phenomenon (de la Grasserie 1896).

Chapter 3 gives a possible answer to the following questions: (a) which
kind of nouns may in principle take which article(s) and (b) under what
circumstances may – or must – a given noun type take a given article? The
author goes on to establish the exact number of articles, pointing out that
'the' and 'a' do not complete the paradigm, possible candidates being
'some', 'any', as well as 'zero article'. What follows is a comprehensive
review of the major usage types of the five items and their most
significant exceptions.

An overview of points emerged in the previous discussion opens Chapter 4.
In order to distinguish the article paradigm in a systematic way, the
author proposes that the traditional opposition of definite vs. indefinite
is analysed ''as a composite of three more primitive semantic oppositions''
(p.88). They are locability (the relation of the NP to its context of use),
quantity (all vs not-all) and extensitivity (limited vs unlimited). The
three oppositions are linked within a single informal set-theoretical
framework, which is fuzzy in nature, showing that the set of articles
''overlap with other quantifiers and determiners'' (p. 89).

Chapters 5-7 deal with the situation in Finnish, a highly agglutinative
language with a complex nominal morphology. However, Finnish has no
articles, ''and thus no equivalent way of expressing definiteness. Rather,
definiteness in Finish is often left to be inferred, in a variety of ways''
(p. 90).

The most relevant nominal cases that are used to denote definiteness are
nominative, accusative and partitive. Further, the author introduces the
concept of divisibility, stating that all Finnish NPs can be either
divisible or non-divisible. A non-divisible noun can be multiplied, but not
divided, whereas a divisible NP has a conceptually divisible referent.
Finally, having a relatively free word order, the language uses it as a
device to express theme-rheme relations and emphasis.

The author goes on to examine the situation in Finnish by using translation
as a source of data. The main question to be answered during the process
is: what cues are there in Finnish as the source language that tell the
English translator which article to use? Both oral translations from
informants and published written ones are used. Methodologically, the
author relied on the concept of translation equivalence (Krzeszowski 1971),
originally stating that ''a translation is counted as equivalent if judged
to be so by a competent bilingual, or by several such'' (p. 97). The author
adopts a further refinement of the concept, termed by Krzeszowski (1984:
304) semanto-syntactic equivalence and defined as ''the closest
approximations to grammatical word-for-word translation [or] their
synonymous paraphrases'' (p. 97).

Chapter 6 looks more closely into the phenomenon of the general category of
definiteness that first appeared in Finnish grammar under the term
'species' (Noreen 1904). As originally proposed, nouns whose referents were
known or previously mentioned were said to have definite species, while
nouns with referents which were unknown or not previously mentioned had
indefinite species. More modern accounts of the concept include two
semantically distinct types of species, i.e. notive (whether the noun has a
known or unknown referent, expressed by stress) and quantitative (whether
the noun denotes a partial or total amount). The author introduces the
concept of a species hierarchy (p. 125; 1977), and distinguishes three main
ways in which notive species is expressed in Finnish: word order, function
words and context alone.

The status of definiteness in Finnish is examined in Chapter 7, where the
author reconsiders the basic notions of divisibility and quantity in the
language and a number of grammatical devices to express them: cases,
stress, word order, function words. The chapter concludes with the author's
assertion that the concept of definiteness is not a simple category, but
also comprises aspects of quantity. The notion of a default reading is also
introduced, indicating that ''a given type of NP will be read as
referentially definite or indefinite unless circumstances indicate the
contrary'' (p. 159).

Chapter 8 deals with the results of the contrastive analysis of the
phenomenon of definiteness in English and Finnish. The author starts with
the definition of the tertium comparationis, ''a shared common denominator
in terms of which the comparison can be carried out'' (p. 162). Following
James (1980) and Krzeszowski (1984), Chesterman points out that tertium
comparationis is a background of sameness, and the sine qua non for any
justifiable, systematic study of contrasts (p. 163). He finally adopts the
kind of tertium comparationis based on Krzeszowski's concept of
semanto-syntactic equivalence and establishes the main contrastive
relations based on the analysis he performed. Finally, some most striking
diachronic parallels are pointed out too.

Chapter 9 (Wider perspectives) concludes the volume. The author explores a
number of more general theoretical implications arising from the study.


The present volume stands out as a very valuable and insightful
contribution to our understanding of the rather intricate concept of
definiteness and the way it is grammatically encoded in English and
Finnish. Even though it first appeared some fifteen years ago, it did not
lose any originality or persuasiveness, and the academic rigour of the
theoretical argumentation and analysis is simply admirable. Furthermore,
the author shows real mastery in understanding the principles of
contrastive analysis and its methodological apparatus and deploys them in
such a way as to explore their boundaries. As a contrastivist, Chesterman
sets the standards, as a grammarian, he is ground-breaking and
authoritative, as a writer, he is clear, coherent and precise.

There is absolutely no doubt that ''On definiteness'' will continue to be an
indispensable reference tool to a range of specialists, who should find
this volume both eye-opening and thought-provoking. It will appeal not only
to contrastivists, grammarians and typologists interested in the phenomenon
of definiteness across languages, but also to specialists in discourse
analysis, translatology and semantics of grammar who might feel inspired to
re-examine some of the author's findings from a different angle or another
study field. Either way, the volume is wholeheartedly recommended to its
intended readership.


Carlson, G N 1977. ''A unified analysis of the English bare plural''.
Linguistics and Philosophy 1(3): 413-56.

Chafe, W L 1970. Meaning and the structure of language. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.

Christophersen, P 1939. The articles: a study of their theory and use in
English. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.

Chesterman, A 1977. ''Definiteness in Finnish''. Papers and Studies in
Contrastive Linguistics 7: 111-20.

Dahl, O, 1975. ''On generics''. In E L Keenan (ed), Formal semantics of
natural language, 99-111. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grasserie, R de la 1896. ''De l'article''. Memoires de la Societe de
Linguistique de Paris IX. 285-322, 381-94.

Hawkins, J 1978. Definiteness and indefiniteness: a study in reference and
grammaticality prediction. London: Croom Helm.

Hjelmslev, L 1928. Principes de grammaire generale. Copenhagen: Host & Son.

Jespersen, O 1949. A modern English grammar on historical principles.
London: Allen and Unwin.

Krzeszowski, T P 1971. ''Equivalence, congruence and deep structure''. In G
Nickel (ed), Papers in contrastive linguistics, 37-48. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

_____ 1984. ''Tertium comparationis''. In Fisiak (ed). Contrastive
linguistics: prospects and problems, 301-12. Berlin: Mouton.

Lyons, J 1975. ''Deixis and the source of reference''. In E L Keenan (ed),
Formal semantics of natural languages, 61-83. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Noreen, A 1904. Vart Sprak. Lund: Gleerups.

Russell, B 1905. ''On denoting''. Mind 14: 476-93.

Yotsukura, S 1970. The articles in English: a structural analysis of usage.
The Hague: Mouton.

Svetlana Kurtes holds a B.A. in English Philology, masters degrees in
Sociolinguistics and Applied Linguistics and a Ph.D. in Contrastive
Linguistics. She worked as a Lecturer in English at Belgrade University and
her affiliation with Cambridge University started in the University's
Language Centre, where she was involved in language advising and analysis
and documentation of language learning materials. She is currently based in
the University's English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Department,
where she coordinates a research project in English as a foreign or
additional language. Her research interests involve contrastive
linguistics, sociolinguistics, language education and intercultural

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