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Delimiters is an alternative term for articles, as in definite and indefinite articles. This is a term that I have proposed, as I find the term article to be confusing and unhelpful, especially for students. Delimiters or articles belong to the larger syntactic category of determiners. The following is my own approach to analyzing and teaching delimiters, which comes from my work in cognitive linguistics. 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.

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

1 Introduction

English has the following noun delimiters.

  • Singular indefinite a and an
  • Singular / plural definite the

Additionally, some functions like a plural indefinite delimiter, as in some apples, referring to a particular quantity of a non-specific set of apples. For nouns with no delimiters, some linguists describe such nouns as a zero article, as in ∅ apples in I like apples. Or the nouns can simply be called bare nouns - nouns not modified by a determiner. We thus have the following basic forms.

  • Marked nouns, i.e, marked with a/an/the
    • Singular indefinites
    • Singular plurals
  • Bare singular nouns
  • Bare plural nouns

We have one key distinction between marked and bare nouns, and another key distinction between definite and indefinite nouns. The definite / indefinite distinction is often not taught clearly; they can be explained to students as follows:

  • Definite: Known or familiar to the addressee (listener/reader). That is, the speaker/writer assumes the addressee would be familiar with the item, for whatever reason. It could be because of linguistic context, physical context, or other factors.
  • Indefinite: Unknown or unfamiliar to the addressee. The speaker assumes the addressee would not be familiar with the item.

2 Learner issues

Learners will have difficulties if delimiter use patterns differ from those in their L1, e.g., for the extended patterns below. Those whose L1 lacks a delimiter system will have particular difficulties, first with the basic patterns, and then with the pattern extensions. This includes Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and other East Asian languages, as well as Russian.

Learners, especially in East Asian countries, are hindered also by teaching methods. In Korea, and similarly in other Asian nations, English education at the secondary level focuses on traditional, teacher-based instruction, and teaching traditional delimiter rules. These rules are inaccurate, difficult to apply, and for learners, not intuitive or sensible. These include:

  • First mention rule: Nouns mentioned for the first time are marked with the.
  • Second/subsequent mention rule: Nouns mentioned again are marked with a/an.
  • Count vs. non-count/mass noun rule: Nouns fall into distinct categories of count nouns (which are marked with a/an/the) and non-count or mass nouns (which have no delimiter, i.e., bare nouns).

The basic problem is that these do not work, and students realize this when they see many apparent exceptions. A system of rules and exceptions is confusing and difficult to learn or apply. Some examples of violations of these rules include:

  • In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. (violation of first/subsequent mention rule)
  • I want a man who knows what love is -- a man who knows how to cook, a man who can take care of children, and a man who can have an intelligent conversation. (violation of first/subsequent mention rule)
  • I like coffee. Please give me a coffee. (To students, this seems like a violation of the non-count noun rule -- they are led to believe that nouns like "coffee" and "water" are only non-count nouns, and are not aware that many such nouns are interchangeable.
  • I need the support of all my employees. (Students are not aware that an abstract noun like "support" can be instantiated with the and a post-modifier phrase.)

The problems are further compounded with some unusual and inaccurate rules. For example, Koreans are sometimes taught as a rule that musical instruments are marked with the, so one must say that "Mary plays the piano. They are not aware that one can also say "Mary plays piano," referring to a general activity. In short, students are not aware that nouns can be used with different noun phrase patterns to achieve different meanings and nuances in real contexts.

3 Basic delimiter patterns

We start with physical nouns, as these are the most basic nouns in a language. The basic patterns apply to physical nouns, and these will be extended to non-physical nouns for more specialized meanings. Physical nouns are marked by the following perceptual properties that do not hold, or do not hold very well, for more abstract nouns:

  1. They are more tangible and perceivable.
  2. They are more imageable, that is, when asked, one can imagine and mentally picture the noun.
  3. They are probably learned earlier and more easily in language acquisition than their more abstract analogues.

We can distinguish between nouns referring to distinct objects or items, versus nouns referring to materials. Object nouns are even more concrete and imageable than material nouns, and they have distinct boundaries. They are more distinct entities, and thus have the semantic property of entitivity (or entatitivity).

A number of nouns can refer to objects or conceptually concrete items in one context (e.g., “a chicken” or “a nanofiber”), but can easily refer to materials or substances in another context (“chicken” as meat, or “nanofiber” as a material). This distinction is not only relevant to everyday contexts (e.g., shopping or eating, where the difference between “chicken” and “a chicken” can be important), but also to academic contexts, where the difference between “nanofiber” material and “a nanofiber” crucially refer to different noun types and referents. It also can change the essential meaning of some nouns, e.g., “tape” (an adhesive material) versus “a tape” (a cassette tape), or “iron” (metal) and “an iron” (a fabric-pressing device, or a golf club).

  Form Meaning Examples
1. Singular marked noun:
a/an/the + singular noun
Object / item / thing, i.e., physical objects a cup, a coffee, a chicken, the chicken
2. Singular bare noun
Material / substance noun coffee, chicken
3. Bare plural noun
Group / set nouns buying eggs; watching birds
4. Indefinite:
a/an + noun
Unknown or unfamiliar
(to listener / reader )
I don’t have a clue.
5. Definite:
the + noun
Known or familiar
(to listener / reader)
Don’t look at the sun.

We thus have five basic patterns, which are to be elaborated on more in separate entries, along with teaching suggestions.

4 Extended patterns

The above patterns are extended to more specialized uses and functions. For example, bare singular nouns can also be used as abstract terms (e.g., “feminism” or “theory”), but they can be made more definite and “countable with the addition of a post-modifier, such as a prepositional phrase, relative clause, or participial phrase. Such post-modified nouns are often marked with the to indicate a specific type, instance, or example of the noun (e.g., “the feminism of the 1960s” or “the special theory of relativity”). However, post-modified noun phrases could be indefinite, being marked with a/an, for descriptive expressions or hypothetical cases (“a theory of gravity”). Bare plurals are essentially used for groups or sets of items (e.g., “buying bananas”), followed by their more abstract generic uses (“lions are wildcats”) for definitions or general descriptions, in contrast to the plus plurals (e.g., “the lions” for a particular set or group of lions). Finally, another specialized use of bare singulars involves nouns would seem countable or definite in their context, but appear with no article (e.g., “going by bus” or “the satellite is in orbit”). The meaning in such bare noun phrases is made more generic or abstract, e.g., emphasizing the general function of the noun rather than a particular object or place (e.g., type of transport, or type of satellite position).

  Form Extended meaning Examples
1. Singular bare noun (Ø) Material noun →

(a) General activity (cf. 2a)
(b) Abstract concepts
(c) Generalized / generic use of object noun

(a) Beware of theft. We like climbing

(b) feminism, peace, existence
(c) It is in orbit / in place; we speak in dialect; I go by bus

2. Singular marked noun (a/an/the) Object noun →

(a) Specific event / instance (cf. 1a)

(a) There was a theft. The theft was rather daring. We had a good climb
3. Bare plural noun (Ø) Group / set noun →

(a) Generic / category noun

(a) Penguins are flightless birds.
4. Indefinite: a/an + noun Unknown or unfamiliar →

(a) Hypothetical cases / examples / descriptions
(b) Definitions

(a) I want a job that is fun and pays well

(b) A cheetah is a wildcat

5a. Definite: the + noun Known / familiar →

(a) Physical context
(b) Part-whole context
(c) Background scene (includes so-called unique referents)
(d) Specifier (comparatives, superlatives, etc.)

(a) You can take the red pill or the blue pill.

(b) Open the computer and look at the hard drive.
(c) At the office, the copier broke down. We saw the sun and the moon outside.
(d) the better / best / first / last choice

5b. Definite: the + noun Exemplar usage

(a) Exemplar or typical example
(b) Habitual activity

(a) In the jungle the lion sleeps tonight.

(b) I will take the bus. I went to the store / the office

5c. Definite: the + noun cf. Indefinite a/an Post-modifiers as specifiers

(a) Specific instance / type, cf.
(b) Definition / hypothetical

(a) the feminism of the 1960s

(b) a theory that explains biodiversity

6. Compound noun phrases Head noun (semantic head) determines article marking the printing company;

the instruction manual;
the philosophy professor

    Also: →

(a) Abbreviations act like compounds; article use depends on head noun of full form
(b) Familiar and pronounceable abbreviations may act like proper nouns with no article
(c) Place names act like compounds, sometimes with the topographical term omitted

(a) the UN (=the...Nations); the CIA (=the...Agency); the the FBI (=the...Bureau);

(b) NASA
(c) the Amazon (=the Amazon River / basin / jungle);
the Alps (=the Alps mountains);
the Congo (=the Congo region)

5 See also

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

5.1 References

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