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"Still lie the sheltering snows, undimmed and white;
And reigns the winter's pregnant silence still;
No sign of spring, save that the catkins fill,
And willow stems grow daily red and bright.
These are days when ancients held a rite
Of expiation for the old year's ill,
And prayer to purify the new year's will."
Helen Hunt Jackson, A Calendar of Sonnet's: February
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LynneLynne TeachHomePosts: 9,752 mod
edited April 2015 in A Question of English
Post edited by Lynne on


  • gazchaogazchao Posts: 5
    edited January 2015
    Is the English article system is flawed?

    Say I want to use a countable noun associated with two dimensions: Quantification and Specificity. I find it hard to use a noun to not tell the quantity and specificity of the noun.

    Allow me to use the example below to illustrate my concern, and meantime I will try to prove that the English article system is flawed.

    "We should use____hammer(s)" Fill one of the articles(a/an/the) in the blank.

    List of situations:

    Q+ (Quantity positive) means that the speaker knows the quantity of the noun and want to acknowledge the listener.
    Q- (Quantity negative) means the speaker does not know the quantity of the noun or does not want to acknowledge the listener.
    S+(Specificity positive) means the speaker is pointing at specific individual or subset of the whole hammer class.
    S- (Specificity negative) means the speaker is talking about the general sense of the noun.

    1. Q+ and S+

    Answer: the hammer/the hammers

    2. Q+ and S-

    Answer: a hammer/ (some) hammers

    3. Q- and S+

    Answer: the hammer (Arguably, the best I can think of)

    4. Q- and S-

    Answer:the hammer (theoretically best answer is the singular form "hammer" without any article, but incorrect in English grammar, which is the reason I think the English article system is flawed and dull. The English grammar forces you to use articles preceding the countable nouns.

    I found out that "the hammer" form can cover 3 situations. The word "the" is so ambiguous for me, which makes me frustrated sometimes. The combination of article and numeral form of the noun(Singular and Plural) is supposed to convey the specificity and quantity of the noun. But I want to ask here that what happen to when the speaker doesn't know neither quantity nor specificity of the noun or doesn't want to acknowledge the speak even they know it. If we use "the + noun" form in this situation. This form can cover 3 situations. Here comes the question, what exactly the word "the" means in these 3 situations. People may say that you can tell the difference according to a more detail fledged context. But really? Tough a hammer sits right in front of the speaker and the listener, the listener still can't tell whether the speaker is telling the general sense of hammer or that particular hammer sitting in front of them. For example in Chinese, in example 4. We simply can say "We should use hammer", which can avoid the conflict with "the hammer" in specific context. I want to say the English article system with only a/an/the is very much flawed.

    I saw there is tons of work about English articles online. but all failed to come out an explanation to cover all the usages. I think it is because that the English article system is flawed just like the 'American justice system'(in a teasing way) or any other things created by mankind. It seems weird that no linguist realized this and published any work about that the system is flawed.
  • LynneLynne Teach HomePosts: 9,752 mod
    edited January 2015
    @gazchao‌ - If you have a particular job to do:-

    "We should use a hammer." - Any old hammer will do, but the job requires one.

    "We should use the hammer." - We have a hammer, and the job requires us to use it.

    If you have some hammers:-

    "We should use the hammers." - It was a waste of time buying them, if we don't use them. Or maybe we need to learn / teach someone to use them properly.

    Maybe you don't have any hammers:-

    "We should use some hammers." - We kind of like hammering things.
  • gazchaogazchao Posts: 5
    edited January 2015
    @Lynne :D Many thanks for your reply. They all make sense for me in the situations you listed above. But I am still not clear with the situation when the speaker simply wants to express a general sense of the noun without mentioning the quantity and specificity of the noun. I think we should use "We should the hammer". Is this right? But we also use "the hammer" form in an specific context. I think the meaning or function of the word 'the' is so vague. Or l tend to think the English article system lacks the ability to express the general sense of nouns without conflicting with the use of articles in specific contexts.
  • LynneLynne Teach HomePosts: 9,752 mod
    edited January 2015
    Your example wouldn't make sense. Should is a modal verb, so you need to say what you think you should do with the hammer.

    I think you shouldn't worry about it so much. @Bobmendez‌ is getting up a petition to do away with articles. :wink:
  • gazchaogazchao Posts: 5
    @Lynne Thanks for your help. Lol. I surely will be delighted if articles disappear. You are right. I plan to go ease with 'the'. The more I think about it, the less I understand it. OED has 50 entries for it. It is impossible to define such a word with one axiom or concept. Some linguist says that the listing of usages in dictionaries is the meaning of 'the'. I decide to go with Greensberg, "The definite article tends to evolve to be merely a noun marker that indicates the respect of nominality. ".
This discussion has been closed.