Specific & Definite Meaning 
Noun + Article Meaning

Hear the Lecture

Generic Meaning Reviewed

In generalizations such as the following about computers, noun phrases are used to refer to classes and groups. 

Examples of Generic Meaning for Noun Phrses

1. A computer is a machine.

2. Computers are machines.

3. The computer has changed modern life.

4. Life wouldn't be the same without computers.

A major feature of this type of grammar is the use of two types of zero + noun combinations--as in example #2 with zero + plural and example #4 with zero + noncount.

Specific Meaning & Noun Phrases Exemplified 

Now let's start looking at the other major type of noun meaning with this set of examples.

Examples of Specific Meaning for Noun Phrases

1. I bought a computer and a printer last week.

2. I set up the computer yesterday and the printer this morning.

3. The four huge boxes that the equipment came in are still sitting in the middle of the floor in my office.

4. The information that I got with the new computer seems spotty and unhelpful. 

These sentences are alike in using very much the same range of articles and nouns as the generic sentences--with the exception of the zero + noncount noun and zero + plural. 

Example #1 has a + singular count noun
Example #2 has the + singular count noun
Example #3 has the + plural count noun

the + noncount noun

the + singular count noun

Example #4 has.... What do you see in Example #4?  Click here to compare answers.

How are these two sets of examples about "computers" different in meaning?  The first set is about computers in general; the second set is about a specific, particular computer and printer. 

Indefinite and Definite Meaning

The specific example set also shows the difference between indefinite and definite meaning.  Look at examples #1 and #2 carefully. 

Example #1 uses the indefinite article for the meaning that is often labelled "first mention."  In a specific context, new information is given using an indefinite article.  Grammarians often talk about this contrast as the given-new contrast or the known-new contrast or the indefinite-definite contrast.  However we label this use of the indefinite article + singular noun, its function and meaning are clear.  The speaker/writer is signaling to the listener/reader that these words present "new stuff in our communication."

Example #2 then refers to the same computer and printer using the--the definite article.  The switch is required because the information is no longer new but is "known" or "given" or "definite."  The speaker/writer is signaling to the listener/reader that s/he thinks the information is now shared between them.  This understanding continues throughout the example set with references to the equipment (in #3) and the new computer (in #4).

But, what about those other uses of thethe floor?  the information?  Why do they occur without the initial use of an indefinite article?

What makes something "definite" in meaning?

Information can be made "definite" by other features of communication.  Sometimes something is "definite" and "shared" information because the communication takes place in a setting--the speaker can point to what's being talked about.  Other aspects of culture and context also mean that we think that we share common information--and so do not need to introduce the topic with a/an but can just start talking about "the sun, the moon, and the stars."

Contexts that Make Meanings Definite and Known

In the Grammar Book by Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, "definiteness" is discussed in terms of context and grammar.  The following table shows various types of contexts that we can share.

Shared in a whole culture (for example, the U.S., or Korea)  the earth, the president
Shared in a local context (for example, Atlanta or GSU)

I'll meet you at the cafeteria.

In the immediate context (for example a classroom, or your home while you are in that context)
Please write your answer on the board.

Close the door, please.

Don't step on the cat!

Something seen or heard or smelled--some immediate perception--can be pointed to or pointed out Please turn down the sound.

Please pass me the salt.

Grammar that Can Make Meanings Definite and Known

Sometimes we can give a noun definite meaning by adding enough additional information to it to identify it.  Two patterns can be used:

1. Add a post modifier--a relative clause, a prepositional phrase, an appositive The book that I bought to take on the plane....

The top of the hierarchy at the University....

The student, Jose from Mexico, wants to teach in Argentina.

2. Wording used for rankings (ordinal numbers such as first, second, etc., and superlative adjectives) The first chapter of this book....

The tallest person on the team....

We do have to be careful about these grammatical categories--because using an ordinal doesn't always make for definite meaning (a first look was all it took...).  And adding to the end of a noun doesn't necessarily make the meaning definite.  You could be saying something that is descriptive rather than defining (I want a book that explains wh-clauses). 

Cohesion & Coherence 

These two terms are used to talk about the ways that larger units of discourse hold together as a single unit.  (Discourse can be thought of 2 or more sentences that make a unit.  It can be a single conversation--a single advertisement--a novel--anything that is generally agreed to be a unified piece of communication.  It can be very small or very very large as long as it is unified.) 

Coherence is the way that meaning ties a unit together. That is, it is meaning based. Generally, coherence is thought of as coming from a culture or from a topic.  Coherence doesn't have to do with grammar but with meaning-based unity.  It's how you know that a story has a beginning and a middle and an end.  It's how you know when you're in a telephone conversation you know it's the beginning, middle, or end of that. It's not necessarily that there's in the grammar but that the unit of communication has an expected organization.

Cohesion is the term used to talk about the ways that grammar can be used to tied sentences together.  For example, the way that pronouns look back to nouns--tying one sentence to another.  The book by Halliday and Hasan listed in the references is a classic investigation of cohesion. So, the has a role in cohesion. In that work, they discuss the way that the can be used to tie sentences into a larger unit.  They use three terms that you will find repeatedly in discussions of cohesion: anaphoric cohesion, cataphoric cohesion, and exophoric cohesion.

anaphoric the computer links backwards to a computer

I bought a computer and a printer.  The computer is now sitting on my desk.  The printer is still in its box.

cataphoric Here is the first line of a story: the door and the woman link forward--we know that a specific person is meant but we don't know who yet. This is a trick used by writers to make us feel that the story started before we started reading it. 

The door opened slowly and the woman strolled into the room.

exophoric or situational This type of cohesion involves links outside the communication--to situational features.  A story in the local newspaper about bad wearther in Atlanta in February 2000 started with the ice storm--everyone living here knew which one was meant.

The ice storm destroyed 1000s of old trees that cannot be replaced.

The use of the (and a/an) for cohesion is a feature of specific communication.  Remember that generic uses do not link to each other in the same way.  And if you are not sure about that, go back to the information on generic meaning in this lecture.

A Tricky Question

What's the meaning of the noun phrase in the box?  Is it indefinite specific?  Or, generic? 

a book

What's your answer?  Click here to see mine

Teaching Challenges 

There are a lot of teaching challenges involved with teaching the articles and nouns and working with specific and generic meanings.

One challenge for us and our students is that the same forms are used for quite different meanings in different contexts.

Another challenge for many students is that they often do not include an article or determiner when one is needed.  They create zero + noun combinations that  mis-communicate--either because nouns without articles are not allowed for specific communication or because they use the wrong type of noun without an article. 

Yet another challenge is the sequencing of these materials.  Where do we start to teach article + noun combinations.  A lot of thought has gone into that topic--and not much resulting from the thinking so far, I'm afraid.  One answer that has occurred to me recently is that we need to start with places where students do not have choices--with proper nouns (the Atlantic Ocean) and with idioms and set phrases (on the mark). These are just things to be learned as set phrases.  Then, we need to teach students how to make choices based on context and meaning. 

I started off trying to teach this material by explaining the meanings and noun phrase types to my ESL students.  I am now convinced that a more effective approach is going to be to start with contexts rather than abstract definitions.  We need to have students learn to use article + noun combinations as they are used in different types of writing and speaking.  For example, students can learn to read and write definitions--certainly a useful task for learners even if they are not going to be going to college or university.  Or, students can read and write about technical and/or scientific topics having a chance to see generic uses in those settings.  Then, they can read and write stories and narratives and see specific uses in those settings. 

But...I'm getting ahead of myself.  That's the topic for the section on "the importance of nouns."  See you there!

Please send me your questions and comments at patbyrd@comcast.net.  Thanks.


Celce-Murcia, M. and Larsen-Freeman, M. (1999). 2nd Ed. The Grammar Book.  Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Halliday, M.A.K, and Hasan   (1976).  Cohesion in English.  NY: Longman.

Master, P. (1990).  Teaching the English articles as a binary system.  TESOL Quarterly 24 (3), 461-498.

McEldowney, P. L. (1977).  A teaching grammar of the English article system.  International Review of Applied Linguistics 15 (2), 95-112.

Whitman, R.L. (1974). Teaching the article in English.  TESOL Quarterly 8 (3), 253-262.