Class Reference without ‘the’

We can think of articles (a[n], the, Ø) as referrers because they refer an item (noun) to its context. In the blog ‘What are deictics?’ we understood articles as ‘pointers’ and in the previous blog we saw that ‘the’ can point in three directions.

 

But ‘the’ is not the only article that can point or refer. We can also use zero article (Ø). It usually functions as a class referrer.

 

So what is class reference? Before we answer this question we need to think about groups and individuals.

 

A class is a whole group or category of things, for example animals or fruits.

 

A member is an individual belonging to the group, such as a dog or an apple.

 

But a dog can also be a class. The word ‘dog’ includes the meaning of many different kinds of dogs such as big dogs, small dogs, brown dogs, spotty dogs, long-haired dogs, short-haired dogs, bulldogs, poodles, etc. etc.

 

Even one member from the class of dogs – for example poodles – can be a class (standard poodles, miniature poodles, toy poodles, etc. etc.).

dog-pet-poodle-1784641

So you can see that the difference between class and member is a matter of perspective: a poodle can be the whole class or just one member of a class, depending on how we look at it.

 

We express this point of view by using articles to refer to the noun. For example:

  • I like Ø poodles (class: all poodles in general)
  • I saw a poodle today (member: one specific poodle)

If we want to refer to a whole class we usually use the zero article (Ø) and a plural count noun. For example:

  • I like Ø poodles (class: all poodles)
  • Ø Apples grow on trees (class: all apples)
  • Ø Koalas eat leaves (class: all koalas)

Notice that each example follows the general rule that a singular count noun cannot be on its own; you need to give it an article or a plural marker.

 

If the noun is not countable, we also use the zero article (Ø) and a non-count noun:

  • I like Ø beer (class: all beer)
  • Ø Rice is healthier than Ø bread (class: all rice, all bread)

To summarize, class reference is when we refer to an item (noun) as a whole class or category. We use the zero article (Ø) with either a plural or non-countable noun.

‘The’ points in 3 directions

Before we get into the pointing functions of ‘the’, let’s read a short text:

princess_in_a_tower_adoptable_closed_by_silverfang1794-d87hgtc

Once upon a time there was a princess. She lived in a great castle and was respected by the people of her village. One day the princess disappeared from the castle. The king was very worried.

 

Now let’s look at three noun groups with ‘the’:

 

The peopleof her village

 

In the noun group ‘the people of her village’, the main noun is ‘people’. The definite article ‘the’ points forward to the postmodifying phrase ‘of her village’. In other words, ‘the people’ is identified by ‘of her village’ (see the previous blog about the identifying function of ‘the’).

 

One day ← the princess disappeared

 

In the noun group ‘the princess’, the main noun is ‘princess’. The definite article ‘the’ points backward to the previously mentioned ‘a princess’. Since the princess has already been mentioned, we use ‘the’ to identify ‘the princess’ as ‘the same princess already mentioned’.

 

The king ↗ was very worried

 

In the noun group ‘the king’, the main noun is ‘king’. The definite article ‘the’ points outward, or outside the text into the world (context). It doesn’t matter that the world is not real. In the context of a fairy tale with a princess, the reader can reasonably guess that a king will also be in the story. This is why we say ‘the king’: he can be identified as ‘the king you would expect to find in a fairy tale’.

 

Other examples of outward pointing are:

  • The sun / the moon
  • The world
  • The president
  • The internet
  • The government

For each of these noun groups, the reader or listener can reasonably guess which item is being referred to, especially if only one item exists in that context: for example ‘the president’ (of this country).

This is why traditional grammar books often say that we use ‘the’ if there is only one of something. While this may be true some of the time, I hope you can see that the real function of ‘the’ ‘is that it identifies and points to a specific item in a text or context.

‘The’ as identifier

Which sentence sounds more natural to you?

  1. Please open a door.
  2. Please open the door.

You probably chose (b) and that is correct. But why? It’s because (a) means ‘open any door you like’ whereas (b) means ‘open a particular door – you know which door I mean’.

 

Many rooms only have one door, so (b) would be the only possible sentence. It doesn’t mean that (a) is wrong or impossible. We could perhaps think of a context in which (a) would be appropriate: like a game show in which the contestant needs to guess where a prize is hidden. The difference is that in (a), the noun ‘door’ is not identified but in (b) it is. This identifying function is performed by ‘the’.

Let’s look at some more examples.

To which guitar am I referring?

  • The black one
  • The one that looks like a ‘V’
  • The one on in the middle

It is assumed that you are able to identify each guitar. This is because each example has the article ‘the’. ‘The’ has an identifying function. It means ‘I think you know which one I’m referring to’. The context (pictures) make it clear that:

  • The black one is C
  • The one that looks like a ‘V’ is A
  • The one in the middle is B

You can identify all three guitars because the grammar and the context (pictures) work together.

But can you identify the following?

  • The electric guitar
  • The black guitar
  • The one that looks like a ‘V’

The only guitar you can identify is the one that looks like a ‘V’, because all the guitars are electric and black. So the identifying function of ‘the’ depends on the context.

What are deictics? And a general rule for using articles

There are three articles in English: a(n), the, and ‘zero article’ Ø. Articles belong to the grammatical class deictic (‘determiners’ in traditional grammar). The deictic is part of the nominal group and takes up the same slot as ‘this’ ‘these’ ‘those’ ‘my’ ‘your’ etc.

 

Nominal group structure

The

This

A

My

koala
Deictic (Pointer) Thing

 

Those

These

The

My

six cute koalas sitting in the tree
Deictic (Pointer)     Thing  

 

You can see that you can choose from a range of deictics, including ‘the’. This is why we can’t say ‘the my koala’ because you choose just one deictic: ‘the’ or ‘my’.

 

Deictic means ‘pointer’ which means that the deictic positions the noun so that you can see it from a certain point of view. ‘Those’ tells us that the koalas are far from the speaker. ‘These’ tells us that the koalas are close to the speaker. But ‘the’ is much more difficult (We will see how ‘the’ points in part 3). ‘My’ tells us that the koala belongs to the speaker.

 

Of course the choice of deictic depends on the type of noun. You can say ‘my koala’ and ‘my koalas’ and you can say ‘this koala’ but you can’t say ‘these koala’. This is because the noun ‘koala’ is singular. So you see that the use of articles depends on whether the noun is plural or singular.

 

Here is the general rule of thumb:

A singular count noun cannot be on its own; you need to give it an article or a plural marker.

For example:

Koala eats grass. ✘

A koala eats grass. ✔

The koala eats grass. ✔

Koalas eat grass. ✔

 

Of course each correct example has a different meaning. We’ll talk more about this in part 2.

How to use defining and non-defining relative clauses

Have you ever studied ‘relative clauses’ and thought they were confusing? You’re not the only one! In this blog I will explain the difference between defining and non-defining relative clauses.

What is a relative clause?

A relative clause is part of a sentence which adds more information about a thing in the postmodifer position. For example:

(1) The guitar which is black belongs to John.

The relative clause “which is black” adds more information about the thing (guitar).

Here’s another relative clause:

(2) The guitar, which is black, belongs to John.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Sentence (2) is just the same as sentence (1), only sentence (2) has an extra comma.”

Although the sentences look the same, they do not have the same meaning. Sentence (1) is defining and sentence (2) is non-defining. Let me explain.

 

Defining relative clauses

Example: The guitar which is black belongs to John.

If I show you 3 guitars and say “The guitar which is black belongs to John”, do you know which guitar belongs to John?

Of course not, because they’re all black! The information “which is black” should help you to identify John’s guitar. But in this case, since all the guitars are black, the defining information does not help at all.

But what about now:

The guitar which is black belongs to John.

Now you know that John’s guitar is “C” because the information “which is black” identifies or defines John’s guitar. Since each guitar is a different colour, we can identify or define John’s guitar by its colour.

 

Non-defining relative clauses

Example: The guitar, which is black, belongs to John.

In this case, the information “which is black” does not identify or define John’s guitar. It just tells us what colour the guitar is.

We don’t need to define John’s guitar by its colour, because clearly “C” is the only guitar.

One more thing

If we read aloud the sentence with the defining relative clause:

The guitar which is black belongs to John.

We don’t pause between “guitar” and “which”. This proves that the clause “which is black” is part of the noun group. In fact, defining relative clauses are rank-shifted.

However, if we read aloud the sentence with the non-defining relative clause:

The guitar, which is black, belongs to John.

We must pause between “guitar” and “which”. This proves that the clause “which is black” is not part of the noun group. It is separate because it does not define the guitar. This is why there is a comma between “guitar” and “which”.

 

So in summary, defining relative clauses give information which identifies the thing, and this information is part of the noun group.

 

 

 

Understanding noun groups: A lesson from my 3-year-old

Let me begin with a funny story.

The other day, my 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter were eating breakfast cereal in the morning. My son announced, “This is my second bowl!”.

My daughter, who likes to copy her big brother, quickly followed up with, “This is my Pororo bowl!” (Pororo is a children’s character, as can be seen in the photo).

After picking myself up from the floor, I realized this was a great opportunity to teach noun group structure. Noun groups are also known as nominal groups (functional grammar) and noun phrases (traditional grammar).

So why was my daughter’s utterance so funny? She made a very similar structure but with a different type of noun group. Here is the comparison:

Son

Deictic Numerative Epithet Classifier Thing Qualifier
My second bowl

Daughter

Deictic Numerative Epithet Classifier Thing Qualifier
My Pororo bowl

The Deictic is the pointing word. It answers the question “Which bowl?”.

The Numerative is the counting word. It answers the question “How many?”.

The Classifier is the classifying word. It answers the question “What type?”.

The Thing is literally the thing we’re talking about. It is expressed by a noun.

 

When my son said, “This is my second bowl”, one might have expected my daughter to say “This is my third bowl.” However, she chose a Classifier instead of a Numerative – an unexpected noun group structure in the context.

 

If you want to know more about noun groups, you need to see this video that I made:

A grammar lesson from rock n’ roll

Today is gonna be the day…that people all around the world celebrate music.

It’s World Music Day today (thank you, France, for starting this). Unfortunately we don’t really recognize this day in Australia, but I want to celebrate by looking at the grammar of a classic 90s rock song: ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis.

Ok the 90s are over now, but I would be very surprised if you have never heard this song. If you have never heard it, here it is:

And here are the lyrics to the chorus:

And all the roads we have to walk are winding
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding
There are many things that I would
Like to say to you
But I don’t know how

Because maybe
You’re gonna be the one that saves me
And after all
You’re my wonderwall

 

Let’s look at the grammar of the second line.

And all the lights that lead us there are blinding

This is a clause. It is made up of words. The main noun is ‘lights’. So the basic meaning of the clause is:

lights are blinding

This is also a clause, made up of words:

Rankshift table 1

See how the clause box is bigger than the noun box? This is because a clause is a bigger unit than a word. We can say a clause has a higher rank than a word.

We can pack extra meaning into words by adding extra words into the boxes. For example:

Rankshift table 2

I added the prepositional phrase from the helicopter to the noun lights. So now lights from the helicopter is a noun group (also called nominal group).

You can see that the clause box is still bigger than the noun group box. This is because a clause is still a bigger unit than a group. A clause has a higher rank than a group.

 

But there are no helicopters in the song. In the song, it’s a different kind of light.

Imagine we are going somewhere and maybe it’s dark. We can see where we are going because there are some lights. We follow these lights to get to our destination. The song packs all of this information into the noun lights:

Rankshift table 3

The clause box at the bottom is still bigger than the noun group box. This is because the clause still has a higher rank than the group.I added the clause that lead us there to the noun lights. I made a noun group.

But can you also see the small clause box? This shows that the clause that lead us there is now part of the noun group. The rank of this clause has shifted down to the rank of the group. This is rank-shifting.

 

Are you still with me? Thank you for reading to the end. We have looked at one example of rank-shifting in the song, but actually there are 3 more examples. Can you find them?

By the way if you want to see a video that explains rank-shifting (see what I did?) click here:

Happy World Music Day!