Sunday 7 December 2008

On the, again

A correspondent writes to say he is puzzled by the corrections he intuitively made to a sentence from a French-speaking colleague, who wrote:

All aforementioned features appear in the same location and with the
comparable amplitudes.

He rewrote this as follows:

All the aforementioned features appear in the same locations and with
comparable amplitudes.

Is there a simple rule he can tell his colleague to follow?

It's a difficult area of grammar - with complications arising from differences between British and American usage (such as go to hospital vs go to the hospital). Large books have been written on the English article system. Certainly, there's a lot of interference from languages which follow different rules - and French is one which often uses articles where English would not (as in les informations, and suchlike).

The following sequence of examples show the basic options. Uncountable abstract nouns with generic meaning have no article: I'm studying philosophy. We do not say: I'm studying the philosophy. This applies even with premodification (Greek philosophy). If an article is used, it immediately turns the generic meaning into a specific one: I like the Greek philosophy has to mean 'the specific way of thinking found among Greeks'.

Note that when used with postmodification, the is fine, because the of-phrase in effect acts as a way of identifying a subclass, and thus changes the noun into something specific: I'm studying the philosophy of Aristotle. This only works with postmodification: premodifying genitives disallow the: we can't say I'm studying the Aristotle's philosophy.

The same point applies to plural nouns when we want to express a generic meaning. We say I'm studying trees not I'm studying the trees (that's ok if you mean the specific trees you're looking at, of course). And with postmodification the situation is as above: I'm studying the trees of Australia.

But with plurals there is a stylistic alternative: many people have no problem with I'm studying trees of Australia. This is because they're thinking of the noun phrase as a kind of professional ellipsis - like the heading you might find for a course:

Friday 10 a.m. Trees of Australia.

Friday 10 a.m. The Trees of Australia is also possible, of course.

A similar stylistic point applies to the other correction made by my correspondent: All aforementioned features became All the aforementioned features. What's happening here?

The choice is again one of generic vs specific. If the meaning is generic, the article is not used: All guests are welcome at this hotel. As soon as an article is used, a specific meaning emerges: All the guests have been accounted for. But, once again, stylistic alternatives exist. In a more elliptical style, the specific meaning obtains even without the: All guests have been accounted for.

The reason the is privileged in All the aforementioned features should now be clear. It is because the phrase is undeniably specific: features is already specific in meaning, but aforementioned makes it even more so. In addition, the is motivated by the fact that the features have evidently received some prior mention in the text (the so-called 'anaphoric' function of the definite article).

That leaves just the stylistic point. There's nothing ungrammatical about All aforementioned features appear in the same location, but I can't see any reason for introducing an elliptical style here. The word the is always a candidate for omission when a telegrammatic style is required, but then we expect all instances to go: All speakers please leave handouts on chairs. It would be stylistically incongruous to have:

All speakers please leave the handouts on chairs
All speakers please leave handouts on the chairs
All the speakers please leave the handouts on chairs

and so on. Omitting it before aforementioned but retaining it before same location is stylistically uncomfortable.

So, stylistic and semantic factors reinforce each other here, making my correspondent's addition of the an appropriate one.


baralbion said...

I realized only recently that AmEng doesn’t distinguish between ‘in hospital’ and 'in the hospital’. The latter, it seems, can answer the question ‘Where is he?’ on both sides of the Atlantic. But in BrEng only the former can normally answer the question ‘How is he?’ In AmEng, ‘In the hospital’ presumably has to serve in both instances.

Unknown said...

I remember having quite a spirited discussion with a Finn (a fluent speaker of English) about the phrase "in sauna". I assured him that you have to say "in the sauna" in English; but he wasn't convinced, & cited analogies such as "in bed" and "at school".

I wonder whether we would indeed say "in sauna" if going to the sauna were as integral a part of life & culture in the UK as it is in Finland. If you look at Sauna Made in Finland by Matti Karjanoja, for example, you'll see several instances of "sauna" without an article -- & you could almost substitute "church" for "sauna" in most of them!

Anonymous said...

Trees of Australia sounds more authoritative and all-encompassing than if prefaced with 'the' (compare Audubon's 'Birds of America').

baralbion said...

Just as 'Shakespeare's Words' sounds more authoritative than 'The Words of Shakespeare'.

Anonymous said...

I know several Russians (my wife included) who generally get articles right but are demoralised by occasional, unexpected failure. They and many other non-native speakers understand the principles of generic and specific reference, but are bewildered by the seemingly capricious ways that the principles are applied.

We speak of the French and the Germans with what could easily be understood as generic reference (as in French people and German people).

And your example of British go to hospital could arguably refer to a specific hospital, to an unspecified example of a hospital or to a state of affairs rather than a building.

It’s all too easy to see comparable amplitudes as specific, particularly in the vicinity of the same location. I would tell foreigners that the is associated with referents not just specific but unique of their kind. From this stems:

1. a rule of thumb that the is required before same and before superlative forms

2. an opposition between the unique the philosophy of Aristotle and the specific but not unique an idea of Aristotle’s

3. an opposition between a monotheist referring to God (who is simply unique), and a polytheist reference to the God (who is unique of His kind)

As for British go to hospital, it’s a matter of remembering a few collocations. As a mnemonic I would explain to foreigners what it would mean to say, for example:

The ambulance went to hospital.
The yellow bus went to school.
The thieves went to church and stole the lead from the roof.
The Vice Chancellor has gone back to university.

DC said...

Good points - but they're not all capricious. Points to do with collocation and presupposition introduce semantic or pragmatic factors - an essential perspective. One can't explain things like the article on syntactic grounds alone. The semantic/pragmatic perspective for grammar as a whole is illustrated in my Making Sense of Grammar (Longman 2004).

The Ridger, FCD said...

I wonder if Americans don't say "in hospital" because that does, in fact, imply habitual or even permanent attendance. Is it that we like to think someone who's in THE hospital will be coming back soon?

What I find very odd is the inability of native English speakers - who make no errors of the sort in speaking English - to correctly supply (or withhold) articles when translating from Russian. Just last week I had two translate a pair of sentences about Solzhenitsyn's funeral like this:

Our parting with Solzhenitsyn was worthy. They buried a writer without pomp or public curiosity.

Buried a writer to keep Solzhenitsyn from being lonely, perhaps?

DC said...

But this is a naughty interpretation, isn't it? Given the funereal context, it's obvious who the writer is. It's a nice joke, but it says nothing about the use of the article in English. In fact the use of an indefinite in this context is perfectly OK, meaning 'someone who was a writer'. It would be a sort of compliment. One often encounters this sort of thing: 'Put on my grave. I was a writer.'

The Ridger, FCD said...

Oh, surely not. Would you truly say I went to Solzhenitsyn's funeral. They buried a writer without pomp, in a quiet fashion"? instead of "the writer"?

I couldn't. There are other sentences that would allow that - "They buried Solzhenitsyn, a writer" for instance, or "For a (famous) writer, he was buried quietly" - but I couldn't say the other.

DC said...

No, I wouldn't - but then I didn't say I would say it. All I said was that it's possible. It's a marked usage, certainly, and likely to turn up only in certain styles - such as a news commentary. The use of the indefinite article adds a note of atmosphere, drama almost. I can easily imagine it, said in a solemn quiet voice over the airwaves. I wouldn't recommend it for general use, though.