Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login

New from Cambridge University Press!


Revitalizing Endangered Languages

Edited by Justyna Olko & Julia Sallabank

Revitalizing Endangered Languages "This guidebook provides ideas and strategies, as well as some background, to help with the effective revitalization of endangered languages. It covers a broad scope of themes including effective planning, benefits, wellbeing, economic aspects, attitudes and ideologies."

E-mail this page

We Have a New Site!

With the help of your donations we have been making good progress on designing and launching our new website! Check it out at!
***We are still in our beta stages for the new site--if you have any feedback, be sure to let us know at***

Dissertation Information

Title: The Phenomenon of the Word THE in English - discourse functions and distribution patterns Add Dissertation
Author: Ring Mei Han Low Update Dissertation
Email: click here to access email
Homepage: Currently down, please email me for information.
Institution: University at Buffalo, Department of Linguistics
Completed in: 2005
Linguistic Subfield(s): Discourse Analysis; Pragmatics; Semantics;
Subject Language(s): English
Director(s): David Zubin
Matthew Dryer

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.