English Grammar

Definition and Functions of article



The article is a specific class of words that determine or specify nouns in the most general way. Therefore, the article is the main formal feature characteristic of the noun. Note that in the British tradition, alongside with pronouns and numerals used attributively, articles are regarded as determiners. (See also 4.1. and 5./.)

There are 3 types of articles: 1) the indefinite artic­le — a(n); 2) the definite article — the; 3) the zero article or the meaningful absence of the article.

Functions of article

The indefinite article a(n) has 2 forms: a and an. A is

used before a consonant sound: a car, a book, a pain, a

youth. It has 2 pronunciations: 1) weak [a] and 2) strong [ei]. In normal everyday speech the weak form of the indefinite article is used while its strong form is intended to emphasize the noun it determines.

An is used before a vowel sound: an object, an idea, an hour.

The indefinite article is to refer a person or a thing denoted by the noun to a certain class of similar persons or objects. It shows that the noun is taken in a relatively general sense. Otherwise stated, the indefinite article per­forms a classifying function. For example: This is a man.

(Not a woman) / have just seen a young woman waiting for you. (Not an old woman) She is a doctor. (Not a tea­cher) London is a big city. (Not a village) There is an apple for you. (Not an orange) / have a car. (Not a bicycle)

The indefinite article is always used to point to a single person, thing, or notion and thus determines only countable nouns in the singular.

The definite article the has 2 pronunciations: 1) weak , before vowels  and 2) strong . Its strong form is normally used before vowels and for emphatic purposes.

The definite article is to identify and individualize a person or a thing denoted by a noun. It demonstrates that the noun is taken in its concrete, individual sense. Thus the definite article performs an individualizing function. For example: This is the man I spoke to yesterday. I saw the young woman you had told me about. London is one of the biggest cities in the world. The apple is for you.

The definite article may determine nouns of any class both in the singular and plural.

The zero article or the meaningful absence of the article is to signify that the noun is taken in an abstract sense, expressing the most generalized idea of the person, thing, or notion denoted. Thus the zero article performs a generalizing function and basically may refer to nouns of any class.

Article and pronoun

Although both articles and pronouns, mainly de­monstrative and indefinite ones, determine nouns, they do

so in a different way. First, the article determination of nouns is obligatory for the article is indispensable to signal the lexical meaning of a noun in terms of the main lexical oppositions: proper/common, abstract/concrete, coun­table/uncountable, animate/inanimate, human/non-hu­man. (See 1.3.) Second, whereas the function of the article is to specify nouns in the most general way, the demonstrative pronouns this/these, that/those and the in­definite pronouns some, any are used to define persons, things or notions denoted by nouns in relation to other persons, things or notions, their function being to present a noun in a more detailed way, with a higher degree of certainty. Compare: A man called in while you were out. (Not a woman) — Some man/some men called in while you were out. (A man/men strange to me.) Have an apple. (Not an orange) — Have any apple you like. (Every apple, no matter which one) Will you give me the pen ? (Which is mentioned and understood by both speakers) — Will you give me this pen? (The one I am pointing to).

Note that the use of the demonstrative pronouns is arbitrary though in most cases the definite article is more idiomatic. The use of the indefinite pronouns is arbitrary in the case they are to define countables both in the singular and plural. (See the above examples.) Their use may be obligatory if they are referred to uncountable nouns and countables in the plural. For example: There is some butter in the fridge. There isn’t any jam in the cupboard. Have you got any money? (uncountables) There are some books on the shelf. There aren ‘t any nails in the box.

Indefinite article: usage

The indefinite article whose function is that of classification is used to determine only countable nouns in the singular. They include: 1) proper and common nouns, 2) concrete and abstract nouns, 3) animate and inanimate nouns, 4) human and non-human nouns. Common nouns can be either concrete or abstract. Proper nouns are ba­sically concrete.

The individual discussion of animate/inanimate and human/nonhuman nouns in terms of article determina­tion is irrelevant for all of them are common and concrete.

Indefinite article before common concrete nouns

Common concrete nouns include: 1) class nouns, 2) collective nouns, 3) nouns denoting materials. Note that common collective nouns like poultry, police, machinery, etc. and common concrete nouns denoting materials such as air, water, iron and so on are not used with the indefinite article for they are uncountable. (See 2.5. and 2.6.)

Indefinite article before common concrete class nouns

The indefinite article is used in the following cases.

a) Before a common concrete class noun denoting a person or a thing which is not already mentioned or known about, either with or without a descriptive attri-

bute, usually after the verbs be and have. He is a writer. He is a famous writer. Have you got a car? I have got a new car. I have a pain in my leg. There is a book on the


b)   In  the   meaning   «any,   every»   before   a   noun denoting the called person or thing: A gentleman would never act like this. A parcel is bigger than a packet.

c)   Before   nouns   denoting  periods  of time:   three times a day, twice a week, once a month, etc.

d)   In the meaning «one» before nouns of quantity and  substantivized  numerals:  a dozen  eggs,   a  thousand pounds, a hundred times.

e)  Before the first noun of a pair that seems a single whole: a cup and saucer, a bucket and spade.

f)  Before uncountable nouns that in the context turn into countables meaning «a container or unit of»: I’d like a coffee, please, (a cup/a mug of coffee).

Indefinite article before common abstract nouns.

The indefinite article is used in the following cases.

a) In the meaning «a certain amount of or a certain action of» before names of qualities or states, either with or without a descriptive attribute: Have a look at this. He went for a swim. Have a good ride. You need a wash. It is a kindness to tell him the bad news straight away. I have a weakness for chocolate.

Note that words like kindness, weakness and so on may as well render their most generalized meanings — «the qualities of being kind» or «weak» respectively and therefore they may be determined by the zero article. For example: He has always shown kindness to animals. The

President was accused of weakness when dealing with the crisis. (See 2.6.)

Note that some abstract nouns denoting a certain amount of quality or state may be determined by the indefinite article in the case they are given a descriptive attribute: / have a great fear of fire. She fell into a deep sleep. He has a good knowledge of history. Our team put up a good fight.

b)   Before nouns denoting processes:  He drove off with a crashing of gears and a screeching of tyres. A lot of people have gathered to listen to a poetry reading. He has just had a conversation with his friends. It is necessary to hold a discussion about our future plans.

c)  Before nouns denoting phenomena usually with a descriptive attribute — an adjective or ordinal numeral: A heavy rain began to fall. Suddenly we heard a shot, then a second (shot), and a third (shot).

Note that most of abstract nouns denoting pheno­mena, such as weather, rain, thunder, storm, etc. are un­countable. (See 2.6.)

d)  Before nouns denoting periods of time as part of an adverbial phrase: We shall start in a minute. We met an hour ago. Wait a second. This subject was raised a century ago.

e)  Before some nouns denoting generalized notions: / have an idea. He has always had a tendency to missing classes.

Note that most of nouns of the group such as time in the meaning «passing of days, months, and years, con­sidered as a whole», space in the meaning «something measurable in length, width, or depth», direction, acco-modation, etc., as well as nouns denoting fields of

knowledge (linguistics, mathematics, history) are uncoun­table and therefore cannot be determined by the indefinite article.

Indefinite article before proper concrete nouns. The indefinite article may be used before names of

people in the meaning «some», showing that someone is unknown to the speaker: A Mrs Brown wishes to speak to you.

In most cases the indefinite article determines a proper noun provided it has acquired a common meaning. Thus it can be used in the following cases:

a)  Before a name of a painter to denote his picture: This is a Rembrandt. He never saw a Modigliani.

b)  In the meaning «one like or having the qualities of» before names of famous people or literary characters: They say that the young actress is a new Sophie Lor en. Her husband is so jealous. He is a real Othello.

c)   Before a proper inanimate noun to specify its kind: This is a good Champagne, (a good sort of Cham­pagne)

d)   In the meaning «a particular one» before names of times and places: / can’t remember a Christmas when it snowed so much. In 1989 there was a late Easter.

Indefinite article in collocations and set expressions.

The indefinite article may be used before a des­criptive attribute either preceding or following the noun of any class. For example: He was a tall, good-looking man. This happened on a cold, rainy September day. The novel is a funny, intelligent social comedy. It is a novel of immense intelligence, disturbing and diverting.

Any countable noun must be used with the indefinite article after the words half, rather, such, quite, most in the meaning ‘very’, what and formally or literally — many: I have rather a headache. He is quite a young man. This is a most interesting film. What a nice day it is today. I’ve never met such a beautiful girl. Many a small business has failed. (=Many small businesses have failed.)

The indefinite article is used before few and little to denote «not many» or «much»: I’d like to say a few words on the subject. If I have a little time today I’ll come to see you.

The indefinite article may be used before a substan­tivized ordinal number: At first he offered me a book, then a second (book), and a third (book).

Besides, the indefinite article is entered into nume­rous preposition + noun set phrases which function as adverbial modifier and verb + noun set phrases func­tioning as one verb.

a)  Preposition + noun set phrases: as a result, at a glance, at a stroke, at a loss, in a hurry, in a low/loud voice, in a whisper, in a minute/second, in an hour, in a sense in a word, on a par with, to an extent.

b)  Verb + noun set phrases: break a fall, cast/throw a glance, catch a train, catch a cold, do a favour, get in a fury, give a start, have a good time, have a meal, have a swim, have a ride, have a look, have a mind, make a will, make a living, take a fancy.

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