Definite noun pattern

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The definite noun phrase is a semantic-grammatical pattern consisting of the definite delimiter (the) plus a noun. Its primary function is indicating a noun that is familiar in the context, or otherwise familiar to the listener. Examples include:

  • A chicken tried to cross the road. The chicken,however, was unsuccessful in its attempt.
  • You can take the red pill, or you can take the blue pill.
  • I took the bus to school.
  • I would like the same thing that she's having.

The term 'delimiter' is used here instead of traditional jargon like 'indefinite article'. Delimiters (a/an, the) are markers that delimit the noun phrase to a more specific type of meaning. The analysis below is sketched out in Lee (2017)[1]

1 Basic pattern

The primary function of definite nouns, especially in the singular, is to indicate a noun that is not new to the listener, but rather, is known or familiar to the listener, at the time it is mentioned; or the speaker is able to assume that it would be familiar or inferrable to the listener. For plurals, the basic meaning is a set or group of things that are known or familiar. This is in fact how the term 'definite' should be understood and taught.

  • Definite pattern: A definite noun with the indicates an item or entity that is known or familiar to the listener.

This contrasts with the definite noun pattern with the definite delimiter the for items that are known or familiar, or assumed to be known or familiar:

  • Indefinite noun pattern: A indefinite singular noun with a/an indicates an item or entity that is new, unfamiliar, or unknown to the listener.

The definite / indefinite distinction is traditionally taught in terms of the first mention rule and the second or subsequent mention rule, which can be summarized like so.

  • First mention rule: The first time a noun is mentioned, it is indefinite and marked with a/an.
  • Subsequent mention rule: When a noun is mentioned for a second time or subsequent instances, it is definite and is marked with the.

There are several problems with these rules. It does not clearly distinguish between object / entity nouns like "an apple" from material nouns (like "coffee") and abstract nouns (like "existence") that are not marked with delimiters. The terms definite and indefinite can be opaque or non-intuitive for learners, and require a clearer explanation. The rule is seemingly violated, for reasons that are unclear or confusing to learners, and they are taught, or they assume, that such cases are "exceptions" to the rules, which is confusing for them. In fact, apparent exceptions are actually due to more specialized patterns or uses of definite and indefinite nouns phrases. One example can be when new or seemingly not old nouns are regularly used as definite nouns:

  • In the jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.
  • After I left the office, I took the bus home.
  • I stopped by the hospital to see my friend, then stopped by the store on my way home.
  • Can you tell me where the nearest restroom is?

The basic definite pattern can be extended to specialized uses and nuances, as described below.

2 Advanced patterns

2.1 Contextual, inferred, or implied familiarity

The familiarity of the noun may be due to linguistic context (explicit previous mention), due to presence in the physical context, by pragmatic implicature, or by related schematic knowledge.

2.1.1 Physical context

The familiarity of the noun may be due to its presence in the physical context.

  • You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I'm offering is the truth.

2.1.2 Part-whole context

Mentioning a noun can mentally pre-activate related knowledge. For example, mentioning "computer" activates related knowledge of familiar parts of a typical computer, and the listener can readily infer and interpret their meanings as parts of the whole. This of course depends on what assumptions the speaker can make about what the listener knows. Everyone would have no problem with the first example, but the second example would only work for those who with more professional knowledge of computers.

  • When you get a new computer, check the monitor, the optical mouse, and the keyboard to make sure they work properly.
  • When troubleshooting your computer, you can open the chasis, but be careful not to touch the GPU, the PCIE cards, the RAM, or the PCIE cards with your bare hands unless you are properly grounded.

2.1.3 Background scene

Similar to the whole-part relation above, when listening to a description or narrative, for example, listeners create a mental picture or a mental representation of the discourse that includes related background items. This involves knowledge from background or scene schemas, and psychological research has shown that such schemas significantly affect how we recall and process information. Thus, typical items in a physical context can be considered definite, as they are easily inferrable.

  • On my way to work, the weather was awful. When I got to the office this morning, the secretary was sick, the photocopier was broken, and the break room had a bad smell. In the break room, the window had been left open, an animal crawled in, and left a deposit of manure on the floor.

This includes unique referents in the so-called unique referent rule. These are simply part of the background scene, and while some may be unique like "the sun" and "the moon," other less distinct nouns like "the weather" are better explained as background.

  • As the farmer entered the chicken coop, the moon was shining through the window.
  • On my way to work, the weather was awful.

2.2 Specifiers

Some specifiers work pragmatically to specify one item out of a potential set. This includes comparatives, superlatives, and other similar words. They imply a potential set of items, and then the delimiter marks a specific one, albeit in some cases it is unknown to the speaker, but assumed to be known to the listener.

  • The better option would be this.
  • The best option would be this.
  • You aren't the first, and you won't be the last.
  • Could you tell me where the nearest restroom is?
  • That's the same thing that I told you not to do.
  • That's the very truth itself.

Post-modifiers work in a somewhat similar way to specify a particular one; these are discussed under instantiations below.

2.3 Instantiations

Some uses of the definite are related to the specialized uses of the marked singular noun pattern, such as instantations--specific instances, examples, or types of something.

2.3.1 Materials

An definite noun can indicate a particular batch, set, group, quantity, or type of material, versus a general material (bare singular noun).

  • We wanted to test the properties of silicon under high pressure, so 100 g Si was prepared. ... The silicon was then placed in a high pressure chamber.

2.3.2 Specific events

Specific events or instances of an activity are marked with a/an, or the for familiar ones, as opposed to general activities that are indicated with bare nouns.

  • Beware of theft. A theft occurred last night. The theft was rather daring.
  • I like jogging. That was a great jog.

2.3.3 Post-modifiers

Post-modifiers include prepositional phrases, relative clauses, and participial phrases. Many times their role is to modify the noun to indicate a specific type, instance, or example of a more abstract noun. In that case, the noun is considered definite and marked with the.

More abstract Specific instance
redness The redness of your face concerns me.
support I need the support of all my employees.
water The water of Mars is poisonous - don't drink it!
feminism The feminism of the 1960s was notably different from its nineteenth-century counterpart.

2.4 Summary

These are summarized below.

Usage Examples Contrasts with

3 Teaching definites

The basic idea of contextual familiarity can be inferred by students, probably with some coaching. Interesting narratives can juxtapose the definite and indefinite. These can be explained to students by asking them how well the picture the nouns upon hearing them. At first, they do not have a mental picture (unfamiliar indefinite) at first, but later, they have a clearer mental picture of the referents.

Function Indefinite Contrasts with
New, unfamiliar, unknown
cf. familiar, known
Farmer Brown went into his chicken coop to find his best chicken – a large, white rooster named Buster – to slaughter and prepare for tonight’s dinner. Buster sometimes tried to escape, so he was kept in a special cage. He entered the coop, but didn’t see Buster in his usual cage. He looked around the cages, and then to the corner of the room. In fact, Buster was not in any of the cages. However, the rooster was waiting in the corner with a knife in his hand, ready to take on the farmer in hand-to-hand combat.
Events, instances
cf. general activities
Every two days I go for a jog, or if I am tired, then at least a walk. Occasionally I go for a swim or a good climb on a mountain near the city. An exercise that I also particularly enjoy is bicycling. A couple of times a year, a good bungee jump provides a good catharsis and stress release. Aerobic exercise like swimming, bicycling, brisk walking, jogging, and rock climbing can be helpful for managing one’s weight and for maintaining energy levels. Occasional extreme sports like bungee jumping may not contribute to weight management, but can offer psychological benefits.
General definition
cf. generic description
A lynx is a medium-sized wildcat known for its reflective eyes. An ocelot is a small wildcat found in Central and South America, which was once prized for its fur. Lions belong to the cat family, which also includes various cats: lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, snow leopards, cheetahs, lynxes, and others.
General definition
cf. exemplar
Amazon is an example of a revolutionary new service that was created by a visionary entrepreneur – the type of person that is known as a first-mover. A first-mover is a person who first develops and markets an entirely new product or service. The first-mover is a person who first develops and markets an entirely new product or service.

3.1 Practice activities

Many activities can be used to practice a particular function of the indefinite pattern, or a particular function of the indefinite in contrast to a particular definite (the) or a plural generic function (bare singular or bare plural). These can be done for oral and/or written practice activities. For example:

  • Shopping list (e.g., a watermelon cf. watermelons, a steak cf. steak as material)
  • Shopping list for other items -- office supplies, furniture, etc.
  • Inventory list
  • Describe typical items in an office, an apartment, a house, etc.
  • Describe your favorite activity; how/when did you come to enjoy it or become good at it?
  • Describe an important term in your field of work or study.
  • Describe your field to someone who does not know your field.
  • Write an encyclopedia style description of your favorite animal.

4 See also

4.1 References

  1. Lee, Kent. (2017). A “the” or the “a”? L2 learner problems and patterns. Korea TESOL Journal 13(2), 25-48.