Teaching delimiters

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Delimiters is an alternative term for articles, as in definite and indefinite articles. Below are some ideas for teaching delimiters. I have just begin the process of analyzing and publishing my research, but for now, this work can be referenced by citing the following paper (which is available by request).

Lee, Kent. (2017). Korea TESOL Journal 13(2), 25-48.[1]

1 Pedagogical principles

It is recommended that delimiters be taught by breaking them up into separate lessons for each semantic pattern or function, by focusing on one function at a time, or by comparing and contrasting two functions. Examples can be presented inductively for students to work on in groups, followed by teacher-led explanation of the patterns, and then followed by communicative, interactive, or group exercises. It is also recommended that lessons proceed from basic patterns for physical nouns, to quasi-abstract patterns, and then more abstract and specialized patterns.

  1. Inductive exercises can be used, followed by teacher-led group discussion
  2. Basic patterns for physical nouns are taught first
  3. Specialized patterns for other nouns are then taught.

Isolated, context-free sentences, like those found in many grammar textbooks, should not be used, as delimiters depend crucially on context. Rather, texts should be longer, providing some context. Texts should be used that highlight one specific function, or that compare two or maybe three patterns at a time. Materials for inductive exercises can include:

  1. Texts / pictures highlighting one specific pattern or function
  2. Texts / pictures to contrast / comparison of patterns for group discussion
  3. Error examples (L2 texts, pictures)
  4. Cloze / fill-in-the-blank (with whole texts, not isolated sentences)
  5. Longer texts that are more specialized, e.g., artificial, modified, or authentic texts

2 Basic patterns for physical nouns

The basic patterns to begin with as follows. The idea of count versus non-count nouns is not the core semantic distinction expressed by bare nouns (i.e., null or zero article nouns) and nouns marked with the delimiters a/an, the. The core difference is that bare singular nouns refer to materials, while marked singular nouns refer to objects or things. Bare plural nouns refer to a set or group of objects or things.

  1. Bare singular = Material nouns - materials, masses, stuff (e.g., coffee)
  2. Marked singular = Object nouns - objects, things, items, entities (e.g., a coffee)
  3. Bare singular cf. marked singular
  4. Bare plural = A set, a group of objects or things (e.g., drinks)

2.1 Teaching & activity ideas

Simple activities

  • Picture comparisons
  • L2 error examples
  • Map tasks / directions
  • TPR activities
L2 error examples
The unit can be introduced with pictures of signs or product labels with article errors, so students can identify and discuss the problems.

Picture comparisons for bare vs. marked singular nouns
Side-by-side pictures with labels can depict mass versus object nouns. Unfortunately, graphics files are not displayed properly in this wiki, so I sketch out what this looks like with a simple table.
pictures of material nouns pictures of objects
(a blob of water) (a bottle of water)
(a pot of coffee) (a cup of coffee)
(a large container of juice, a bunch of juice glasses, or a blob of juice) (a glass of juice)
(a salad bar) (a bowl of salad)
(several chicken breasts on a plate) (a whole chicken, a live chicken, or a cartoon chicken)

This can be extended with nouns with very different meanings, e.g., tape / a tape (adhesive tape versus a cassette tape), iron / an iron (iron ore versus a device for ironing clothes).

Text comparisons for bare vs. marked singular
Text examples can highlight a particular delimiter function, which students discuss in groups to try to infer the meaning pattern / function. Parallel texts can highlight two different delimiter functions (e.g., material vs. object nouns). Texts should be at least short paragraphs (not isolated sentences like in traditional grammar books), and should be interesting (e.g., narratives). It may help to also have pictures with the texts.
  1. Our kitchen inventory includes fish, chicken, lamb, rice, onion, cucumber, pepper, and tomato. Besides the main dish, we may want to provide salad.
  2. We have a chicken and a lamb in the barn, and a fish in the freezer. For each portion, the recipe requires a cup of rice, an onion and a tomato. To provide each person a salad, we also need a cucumber and a tomato for each portion.

How do you understand the different forms of the nouns in these passages?

  1. A chicken tried to cross the road to get to the other side. But my car hit the chicken, and now there is chicken all over the road.
  2. I ordered chicken, but I think the chicken that I got was not from a chicken. Instead, I suspect it was pigeon, which came from a pigeon or a group of pigeons.

Text comparisons for bare plurals
How are the following nouns different between the marked singulars and the bare plurals?
  1. We have a chicken and a lamb in the barn, and a fish in the freezer. The fish is fresh, and the chicken is plump. For each portion, the recipe requires a cup of rice, an onion and a tomato. To provide each person a salad, we also need a cucumber and a tomato for each portion.
  2. Our barn has a number of chickens and lambs. The vegetable garden has many onions, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes.

When you go shopping, how do you usually buy the following items – as singular or plural nouns?

  • [picture of tomatoes wrapped together]
  • [picture of a carton of eggs]
  • [picture of a bag of onions]
  • [picture of a tray of strawberries]

Cloze / fill-in-the-blank tasks
Passages with blanks before certain nouns can be used for practice and group discussion. The passages should be interesting (e.g., narratives, short paragraphs, not isolated sentences), and blanks should appear before nouns that highlight one particular delimiter function, or a contrast of two comparable delimiter functions (e.g., material vs. object nouns)

Students create lists with different noun types
  • Shopping lists (grocery items)
  • Shopping lists (for clothing, office supplies, furniture, or equipment)
  • Budget proposals (itemized lists)

  • Identifying common objects in the classroom / in one’s home / in a picture
  • Describing material composition of X / materials needed to build X
  • Describing parts / components / material composition
Shopping list
Imagine you are writing a shopping list of items to buy. Which items would you write as a bare singular noun (materials, substances), as a bare marked noun (an individual item), or as a bare plural noun (a set, group, or package of things)?
  • Bare singular nouns
  • Bare plural nouns
  • Marked singular nouns

Explaining a process
  • How an object or material is made
  • Assembly instructions
  • Recipes
  • How something is made from a material
  • Describing how special effects might have been done in a film, or how a video was made (e.g., OK Go videos)

2.2 Indefinite vs. Definite singular

Students may have learned these terms, but may be unclear about what these really mean, as these terms are meaningful to linguists and grammarians, but not to typical students. It is best to illustrate with text examples, picture descriptions, or video clips that illustrate the differences. The basic difference for singular nouns is this.

  1. 'Definite' refers to things that are known to or familiar to the listener.
  2. 'Indefinite' refers to things that the listener does not yet know of, or is not familiar with.

Text examples
Simple text examples can illustrate this distinction. Students can discuss and infer the differences between nouns marked with a/an versus the. It may be helpful to show corresponding illustrations.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Picture examples
Pictures of article errors from public signs, product labels, such can be shown for discussion.
Video examples
A famous scene from the film The Matrix can be shown and discussed. The physical context makes the noun pill familiar in this example.
  1. “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. 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. Nothing more.”

Summary of definite cf. indefinite contrast:

  • Indefinite: New/unknown/unfamiliar to listener
  • Definite: Familiar / known to listener

2.3 Plural generics

Bare plural nouns are generally used for generics - talking about all members of a category, or talking about a category by referring to all members of the set. The idea of a set (like a set of eggs that we buy at a store) is extended to the entire category, or all possible members of a set. This can be taught by presenting pictures or texts, which students discuss to infer the usage pattern.

L2 errors
Signs of incorrect English usage can be shown. For example, in East Asian countries, it is not unusual to see signs for restrooms labeled "man" or "woman" instead of the correct bare plural forms.
A single member (e.g., a bird) contrasted with a Venn diagram of various birds, and labels like "a bird" cf. "birds," "birds that swim".
Encyclopedia-style texts such as these.
  • In what kind of text would you read the following types of bare plural nouns? What is the purpose of such sentences? What are some other possible situations where nouns would be described in such a way?
  1. Lions are primarily nocturnal – sleeping during the day and active at night and even at twilight. They primarily live in savannas or grasslands, and some forests, but lions do not generally in jungles.
  2. Penguins are a group of aquatic, flightless birds. They live almost exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, with only one species found north of the equator. Highly adapted for life in the water, penguins have dark and white plumage, and their wings have evolved into flippers. Most penguins feed on krill, fish, squid and other forms of sealife caught while swimming underwater. They spend about half of their lives on land and half in the oceans. Although almost all penguins are native to the Southern Hemisphere, they are not found only in cold climates, such as Antarctica. In fact, only a few species of penguin live so far south. Several species are found in the temperate zone, and one species, the Galápagos penguin, lives near the equator. Larger penguins inhabit colder regions, while smaller penguins are generally found in

temperate or even tropical climates.

Class activities
  • Write an encyclopedia-style description of your favorite animal or plant (including how it is similar to, related to, or different from other species).

3 General vs. instantiated

When referring to actions as nouns, bare nouns refer to general activities. Marked nouns refer to specific events - specific instances or examples of an activity. This can be illustrated by a public sign with an L2 error that says "The theft is increasing." The sign is awkward because it should refer to theft in general (at any time or place), not a specific theft (at a specific time and place).

  • The following shows a special contrast between bare singular nouns and nouns marked with a/an. Can you guess the pattern or how these differ?
  1. 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.
  2. 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.

The same idea can apply to other nouns, such as material nouns, to indicate a specific type, batch, or quantity of a material.

  • Our study examined the geometric properties of duranium. A 200 g sample of duranium was heated to 1000 °C. The duranium was then observed forming unusual crystalline structures.

4 More extensions of physical noun patterns

More specialized patterns include:

Noun phrase Basic meaning Extended uses/functions
Bare singular nouns = Material / mass / substance → General activities

→ Conditions, states, properties
→ Generalized object nouns (e.g., in orbit)
→ Abstract nouns

Bare plurals = Sets, groups → Category descriptions, Generic nouns (see above)

→ Encyclopedic definitions/descriptions (see above)

Marked singular nouns
(definite / indefinite)
= Object, item, thing, entity → Specific event, instance (of an activity)

→ Specific batch, quantity, set (of material)

Indefinite nouns = Unknown / unfamiliar to listener / reader → Hypothetical nouns / descriptions

→ Definitions

Definite nouns = Known / familiar to listener / reader → Associative nouns, e.g.,

→ Part-whole relationship
→ Background scene
→ Background knowledge
→ Pre-specifiers: comparatives, superlatives, etc.
→ Post-modifiers: Instantiation of state, condition, property; Instantiation of abstract noun
→ Exemplar / typical example
→ Habitual / frequentive

4.1 Bare singulars

4.1.1 Abstract terms

Bare singulars are used for abstract nouns, and these can be illustrated and discussed with text examples, including song lyrics.

  • The following nouns are more often unmarked with a/an/the, and their more common default use may be as bare singular nouns.
  1. If I could find some peace / To take the place of hate and war / All we need is peace / Just to take the place of hate and war. (Lyrics to Peace and love by Marvin Winans, 2009)
  2. Joy and pain are like sunshine and rain / Over and over you can be sure / There will be sorrow but you will endure. (Lyrics to Joy and pain by Maze, 1980)

Note: This should be taught along with post-modified nouns (below).

4.1.2 Generalized nouns

Some object nouns are used without a delimiter (a/an, the) to make the meaning of the noun more general or slightly more abstract in nature. The noun is non-specific, not referring to one specific entity, or to one specific time or place.

Definite / indefinite Bare noun
The hospital is located between the old church and the school. She goes to church several times a week, sometimes before going to school, while her roommate goes to temple.
The male lion has a head covered with a large mane. The tail of both males and females ends in a tuft of hair. We checked the lions’ hair from head to tail, and found no parasites.
The start of such a race is easy; it’s the finish that’s hard. He ran the race from start to finish.
An orbit is an object’s curved path around a point in space. A heliocentric orbit is an orbit around the sun. A geocentric orbit is one around the earth, such as for

satellites, and a geosynchronous orbit is a stationary orbit over the earth.

The earth is in heliocentric orbit around the sun. Various objects are in orbit around the Earth, that is, in geocentric orbit. Some satellites are in geosynchronous orbit around the earth. Other objects may be in other types of geocentric orbits, such as satellites in medium-earth geocentric orbit.
She plays / played the piano. She plays piano.

4.2 Indefinite singulars

Indefinite singular noun phrases can be used to refer to hypothetical descriptions or entities. The noun can remain indefinite throughout an entire extended description. This can then be extended to definition-style indefinite statements, as in dictionary definitions. Text examples can be given for students to discuss and infer the usage patterns.

Hypothetical nouns

The following sentences illustrate a special use of a/an – what is the meaning or nuance in these examples? What is the pattern here? How do you picture these in your mind?

  1. I need a good book to read.
  2. This is not a time for sleeping.
  3. I want a man who knows what love is, but all the men I’ve known were losers.
  4. Graduate students tend not to sleep much. In fact, a typical graduate student like me drinks at least a liter of coffee per day.
  5. Molecules can be polar, like magnets. A molecule of water, for example, contains positively and negatively charged ends.


The hypothetical usage is extended to the following kind of contexts. Are the nouns marked with a/an in these examples always new in these contexts? Where would you see these descriptions, and what is the purpose of these sentences? How do you picture these in your mind?

  1. Lions belong to the cat family, which also includes various cats: lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, snow leopards, cheetahs, lynxes, and others. 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.
  2. 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.

4.3 Definite nouns

Definite nouns with the can be used for a number of specialized meanings or uses. Various books treat these as "exceptions" or as "social or cultural knowledge," but such designations are probably not helpful for students. These may fall into the following specialized categories.

4.3.1 Exemplars

This is a narrative device, where a noun is first introduced as definite. The noun will then figure prominently in the following discourse or text, e.g., as a character, the main topic, or the setting of the narrative. This technique is used in academic writing as well.

  1. In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.
  2. Our survey study found that graduate students tend not to sleep much. In fact, the typical graduate student drinks at least a half liter of coffee per day.
  3. The cheetah is the fastest land animal, capable of speeds to 120 kph and accelerating from 0 to 100 kph in 3 seconds.

4.3.2 Associative nouns

Nouns can be definite though they are not mentioned in the context, because they are related to something else in the context, by virtue of semantic associations. Some types include:

  • Part-whole relationship. E.g., the computerthe processor
  • Background scene. E.g., any outdoor scene → the sun, the weather; any indoor scene → the window, the floor, the door, the wall
  • Background & associated knowledge. E.g., the schoolthe students, the teachers

These can sometimes be illustrated with pictures, narrative texts, or more academic and technical texts.

  1. He approached the chicken coop and opened the door. He looked around the room, and at the cages to check on the hens first, and then saw Buster’s cage. Buster was not there. As the moon cast its light on the bare floor, he noticed that some of his tools were missing on the wall. Then he saw Buster, waiting in the corner with a knife.
  2. When I came to my office today, I found that the photocopier and the printer were both broken, and the secretary was sick.
  3. I usually take a bus to work, or a train when the weather is bad.
  4. When I got to the office, the secretary was gone, and the photocopier was broken.
  5. If I could go back in time to watch Mozart compose in his home, and if I could be a fly on the wall, watching him in the process of composing, I would probably see him discarding many bad compositions before creating a truly great one.
  6. Outside we see the sun and the moon. But on other planets we might see two suns and two or more moons.

Some of these are difficult to teach, and for advanced students, it is simply best to discuss advanced authentic texts, and discuss or point out how some definite nouns are understood as definites by their contexts, e.g, because they are associated with or called up in readers' minds by the context or by previous elements in the context.

4.3.3 Post-modified nouns

A noun phrase can be post-modified with a prepositional phrase, a relative clause, an infinitive modifier, or a participial phrase. Sometimes these are used to indicate a specific type, instance, or example of the noun. For L2 learners, this can be confusing because abstract nouns can regularly be made definite singular with the, which they may find confusing. Also confusing is the fact that post-modified nouns are not always definite. Whether they are definite and specific depends on the context and speaker's / writer's intentions. Often it is best to teach this by discussing examples in academic texts or more advanced texts.

Indefinite Definite
Redness can be a sign of a number of different skin problems. The redness of your face seems serious, and you really should see a doctor.
Sadness and feelings of darkness can be normal. The sadness and the feelings of darkness that you’ve experienced lately could be a sign of a more serious depression.
We are in serious danger of failing or collapsing. We really need more support here. I need the support of all my employees if our company is to survive into the next year. All the support that you can offer will be appreciated.
Love is a basic psychological need. He is in despair, for the love of his life has left him, and she has scorned the love that he offered her.
Water is a bipolar molecule, and the electromagnetic attraction of the molecules to each other explains its surface tension. The water from this tank is contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
Modern feminism began as part of the abolitionist movement against slavery in the early to mid-1800s. More modern forms developed in Marxist countries, and contemporary feminist movements were a product of the social unrest and protests of the 1960s in the US and Europe. The feminism of the 19th century abolitionists was sometimes grounded in religious arguments offered by these progressives. The feminism of the 1960s was clearly more secular, motivated by humanistic ideals, but the feminism of contemporary North America and Europe since then has been shaped by various secular and sometimes religious ideals.
Modern physics has attempted to explain how gravity, electricity, magnetism, and the nuclear forces are related. The weak nuclear force has to do with radiation and

radioactive decay, and the strong force holds nuclei together.

The gravitational force of Earth is described by the value of 9.81 m/s 2, which assumes no air resistance; this is often called ‘little g,’ in contrast to ‘big G,’ the

gravitational constant of Newton’s law.

Quantum physics has been able to bring electromagnetism and the nuclear forces into one theory, but not gravity. This gap is the purview of string theory. The electromagnetism of the Van Allen belts around the Earth protects us from the radiation of solar storms.

4.3.4 Frequentive / habitual nouns

Some nouns indicate regular, habitual activities.

After stopping by a colleague’s lab and a friend’s office, I went to a hospital to see a doctor about my symptoms, but fortunately it wasn’t serious. I took a bus

home, and on my way I stopped by a small store to buy some snacks.

After stopping by the lab and the office, I went to the hospital to see the doctor about my symptoms, but fortunately it wasn’t serious. I took the bus home, and on my way I stopped by the store to buy some milk.

Compare also:

  1. She plays piano. (general activity)
  2. She plays the piano. (habitual activity)

4.4 General teaching / activity ideas

General activities

  • Definitions of terms/concepts from your field
  • Your favorite activity (and how you came to like it or become good at it)
  • Writing narratives, stories
  • Describe yourself as a person
  • Describe an ideal partner / spouse / boyfriend / girlfriend
  • Define a key work / concept in your field
  • Definition paragraph
  • Explain the parts of a computer, structure, machine, etc.
  • Describe a typical office, including types of people and things
  • Describe your typical day
  • Where will you be in ten years, and what will you be doing?
  • What kind of career would you like, and why?
  • What is the most important factor for you in deciding on a job or career?

5 Compound nouns

These include the following forms which can be taught as compound nouns with consistent delimiter patterns. For compounds, the delimiter depends on the intended meaning or nuance of the head noun.

  1. Noun+noun compounds (e.g., a glue gun)
  2. Adj.+ noun cpd. (e.g., the White House)
  3. Abbreviations (e.g., FBI)
  4. Geographic terms
  5. Geographic terms with missing toponyms (e.g., the Amazon = the Amazon region / river)

Generally, the determiner of a compound noun phrase depends on the semantic function / pattern of the head noun in a particular context. However, some nouns are common enough that they are treated as proper nouns, which do not take delimiters. The head noun is usually the last noun (excluding prepositional phrases. E.g.:

  • a/the glue gun
  • a/the printer manual
  • the White House
  • the CIA = the Central Intelligence Agency
  • the FBI = the Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • NASA = the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (but this abbreviation is usually used like a proper noun, so just “NASA")

5.1 Activities

  • Definite and explain a technical or scientific term.
  • Describe / explain a technical procedure.
  • Describe the geography of a particular region
  • Describe / explain the functions and/or organization of a government and government agencies

6 Various / general ideas (for any/all patterns)

These ideas are for practicing or comparing different functions, especially more advanced ones, or integrating different functions together in a text or oral production activity.

Paragraph / text comparisons
Passages that highlight two different delimiter functions

Cloze / fill-in-the-blank text activities
Passages with blanks before some nouns (fill in the blank), which highlight two different delimiter functions

Paragraph writing or oral tasks
These are based on traditional writing paragraph genres. These can be adapted to tasks and topics for particular delimiter functions, e.g.:
  • Lists
  • Descriptions
  • Narratives
  • Definitions, exemplification
  • Process
  • Contrast / comparison

Descriptions and definition tasks
Here are some more complex tasks for oral or written work.
  1. Film budget (for a proposal for an independent film; pre-production, production, post-production, and distribution phases)
  2. Write an encyclopedia entry describing an animal, regions, historical person, etc.
  3. Describe and explain the typical features of X. Then discuss one example of X, how it is typical, and how it differs from typical X’s.

Here, X can be anything, depending on the desired difficulty level and students’ interests: insects, birds, penguins, sports, sci-fi films, anime, superheroes, video games, romantic poems, mystery novels, stars, jazz music, etc.

  1. Describe a particular artistic genre or subgenre (of film, music, novels, etc.); then discuss a specific example, and explain how it fulfills and differs from the standards of the genre.
  2. Describe a particular theory, movement, framework, belief system, or ideology in your field of study, and particular phases or varieties of this system.
  3. Present a proposal for your own independent film project, as if you were pitching the idea to a group of investors in order to gain funding for the project.

Here are some more complex tasks for oral or written work.
  1. How something is made from a material.
  2. Describing how special effects might have been done in a film, or how a music video was made (e.g., OK Go videos).
  3. Process: a scientific experiment, a research methodology
  4. A manufacturing processes, or the industrial processing of a material.

7 See also

More material will be added to this page later, along with related pages for teachers and learners.

7.1 References

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