Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

The Articles in English (1)

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

The Articles in English (1)

Article excerpt


After considering the history of the label 'article', this paper shows how, although the and a(n) do make up a grammatical system in Modern English (being mutually exclusive), the two articles have quite different roles in the grammar. The developed from a demonstrative and is nowadays only sometimes substitutable for one. A(n) developed from the number modifier one and has diverged far from it. The generic use of the two articles is contrasted, and also what happens when there is an underlying sequence of articles.

1. Introduction

The label "article" was used for a word class in Classical Greek which had two members--what we would call "definite article" (the "preposed article") and what we would call "relative pronoun" (the "postposed article"). These two grammatical words showed similar morphology, having gender, number and case inflections. The definite article had evolved from a demonstrative. There was nothing corresponding to "indefinite article". No class of articles was recognised for Latin, nor for Old English.

Modern English (NE) has the, which developed from a demonstrative in Old English, and a(n), which developed from a reduction of the cardinal number one. Almost every grammarian of NE groups the and a(n) together, either as part of a major word class (generally adjective, but pronoun and preposition have also been suggested--see Michael 1970: 350-61) or as a separate class.

2. Articles as a grammatical system in Modern English

In NE the pre-head structure of an NP with a common noun as head is (Dixon 2005: 26):

a) an adverb which modifies a complete NP, e.g. even, simply, really; or what a or such a;

b) a predeterminer, e.g. all (of), some (of), both (of), one (of), another (of), any (of), one-quarter (of);

c) a determiner, which can be an article (the, a), a demonstrative (e.g. this, those) or a possessive word or NP (my, John's, the old man's);

d) a superlative (tallest, most beautiful), a comparative (taller, more beautiful); or an ordering word (next, last) and/or a cardinal number (three) or a quantifier (many, few) or qualifier (some, any);

e) an ordinal number, e.g. fourth;

f) one or more adjectival modifiers;

g) one or more modifiers describing composition (e.g. wooden), origin or style (e.g. British), purpose/beneficiary (e.g. rabbit in rabbit food, medical in medical building).

Although only one element may be chosen from slots (a), (b), (c) and (e), there may be more than one in the other slots. Examples with two or three selections from slot (d) are: many taller entrants and two next fastest horses.

It is the custom to group together English the and a(n) as articles, and to say that they occur as determiners, in slot (c). For the, this is the same slot as demonstratives, from which the definite article evolved. And (c) must be the slot for the since it can precede a full array of choices from slot (d); for example, the (c) next (d) two (d) fastest (d) horses.

Many examples of complex NPs including a(n) could be explained equally well whether a(n) were in slot (c) or in slot (d). Compare a taller man and a last prayer with three (d) taller (d) men and one (d) last (d) prayer. The justification for placing a(n) in slot (c) lies in NPs such as a (c) shorter (d) last (d) prayer; sentences such as *one shorter last prayer or *three shorter last prayers are scarcely acceptable (they could only be produced in the most contrived circumstances).

Note that any of the items in slot (b) can be followed by the from slot (c) plus a head noun in plural inflection; for example all/some/both/one/any/one-quarter of the dogs. A(n) can only be used with a singular noun and so is not possible (save in highly unusual contexts) after most slot (b) items; one would not normally say, for instance, *all/some/any of a dog. However, fractions may be followed by a(n) plus a singular noun, as in one-quarter of a cake. …

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