Writers' Clinic IV: Definiteness
It's no secret that the problem of definiteness is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Koreans writing in English. Indeed, it is an invariable
problem area for all non-native users of English, even for those whose native languages, unlike Korean, include an article system which differentiates between definite and indefinite. In fact, the problem is somewhat deeper than most Koreans, even Korean teachers of English, are usually aware.
Koreans tend to think that the problem is simply a matter of selecting between the definite article ("the") and the indefinite article ("an" / "an"), and that the proper selection can be made according to 'grammatical' rules applied at the sentence level. This, unfortunately, is not the case. There are many instances where Korean-English problems with definiteness do not involve an incorrect choice between 'a' and 'the', and there are many cases where questions of definiteness cannot be analyzed in terms of sentence-level grammar. Definiteness is a very deep linguistic feature for which mechanical, surface-level analyses are often inadequate.
Consider this chunk of Korean-English discourse:
My father's hobby is reading a book, my mother likes to c limb a mountain, and I like to sing a song.
The problem here is most certainly a matter of definiteness, but none of the 'rules' that Korean students are taught about selecting between "a" and "the" will help you to solve it.
It is clear that the speaker does not have a specific book in mind; his father reads many different books. Similarly, his mother climbs various mountains, and he sings a variety of different songs. Obviously, the speaker is not referring to any definite,. specific book, mountain, or song. I suppose that, in forming his chunk of discourse, the speaker reasoned that he should use the indefinite article, "a" , since he wasn't referring to a definite book, mountain, or song.
What he failed to realize, and what English teachers and textbooks in Korea fail to make clear, is that in most cases, true indefiniteness in English is not expressed with an indefinite article. We generally express true indefiniteness with a plural noun and no article. Certainly this would be the case here:
My father's hobby is reading books, my mother likes to climb mountains, and I like to sing songs.
Do you see how this zero-article plural form expresses true indefiniteness? This kind of indefiniteness means that in uttering the sentence, the speaker has no specific book, mountain, or song in mind. This utterance is more completely indefinite than, for example:
In fact, the most natural, conversational, and idiomatic way to express the same idea would be: "My father likes reading, my mother likes mountain-climbing, and I like singing."
i) When I got home yesterday, my father was reading a book. My mother spent the day climbing a mountain. I felt so happy that I started to sing a song.
This example, where the 'indefinite' article is used, is actually more definite than la, which uses the zero-article plural form. This example refers to one particular book, one particular mountain, and one particular song. However, it is not as definite as the following example:
ii) Yesterday my father read the book you gave me for my birthday. My mother and I climbed the mountain behind our house, and I felt so happy that I sang the theme song from "The Sound of Music".
This example illustrates true definiteness. Not only is the speaker referring to one specific book, one specific mountain, and one specific song, but in each case the listener shares the specific reference, either because of information he already has, or because of information he has been given by the speaker.
Thus, we are really talking about three levels of definiteness. The zero-article plural expresses true indefiniteness: a whole class of items in general. No particular individual item is being referred to. The indefinite article expresses the idea of one particular member of a certain group or class. That item may be specific in the mind of the speaker, but not of the listener. And finally, the definite article expresses the idea of a particular item, reference to which is shared by both speaker and listener.
It seems to be the zero-article plural which is least familiar to Koreans writing in English. This gives rise to many problems. Here's another example:
in my opinion, this program is useful for everybody, especially a businessman.
Once again, the writer of this sentence does not have any particular businessman in mind. He is referring to a whole class (businessmen) in general. So, this idea of true indefiniteness should be expressed with the zero-article plural:
In my opinion, this program is useful for everybody, especially businessmen.
In addition to cases like problem sentences 1 and 2, which certainly sound like 'mistakes' to native speakers, there are also cases where the incomplete understanding of the zero-article plural leads to sentences which, while not clearly 'mistakes', seem somehow inappropriate, awkward, unnatural, or stylistically undesirable. Consider this one:
The article contains very valuable information for a person who wants to travel abroad.
Problem sentence 3 may not be an out-and-out 'mistake', but I'm sure virtually all native speakers would be more comfortable with this version:
The article contains very valuable information for people who want to travel abroad.
Again, since the speaker is really referring to the whole class of people who travel abroad in general, the zero-article plural is most appropriate.
Consider these variations of the same sentence:
The article contains very valuable information for somebody who wants to travel abroad.
The article contains very valuable information for anybody who wants to travel abroad.
Again, I wouldn't call 3' a 'mistake', but it seems unnatural and awkward. The word, 'some', as in 'somebody', 'somewhere', 'sometime', etc. implies a certain degree of definiteness; it points to the existence of one particular item. The word, 'any', as in 'anybody', 'anywhere', 'anytime', etc., on the other hand, does not refer to any particular item in the group. It states explicitly that the statement being made applies equally to all members of the group. In this sense, 'some' is more definite than 'any'.
There is another fairly common Korean-English problem involving an overly definite use of 'somebody':
I think I take after my mother, but somebody says I resemble my father.
In this case, the speaker is not really quoting any one specific person. The real meaning is less definite: various people have commented on the resemblance between the speaker and her father.
I think I take after my mother, but some people say I resemble my father.
Here are two more examples of similar problems in definiteness, both from the written work of my advanced-level students:
I don't like a movie with too much violence.
My mother wants me to marry the man who works for the big company like Samsung or Daewoo.
The idea being expressed in problem sentence 5 is clearly true indefinite-ness: the writer dislikes an entire class of items (overly violent movies) in general. Clearly, the zero-article plural is called for:
I don't like movies with too much violence.
Problem sentence number 6 also uses an inappropriate level of definite-ness. The writer's mother does not have a specific man in mind. She wants the writer to marry one (unspecified) example of a general class (men who work for large companies). Similarly, it is obvious that she does not have a specific big company in her mind, since she actually mentions two different companies, and with the expression 'such as', indicates that these are only two among many other examples of the whole category. So, in talking about one possible item of a larger group, when that item is not specific in the minds of both speaker and listener, we use the indefinite article:
My mother wants me to marry a man who works for a big company like Samsung or Daewoo.
Notice that while all the problem sentences I have presented involve problems of definiteness, sentence 6 is the only one so far in which the problem involves proper selection between the definite and the indefinite article. A surface-level analysis of articles clearly fails to provide a full understanding of definiteness. Here is yet another example, also from the writing of one of my advanced-level students, of a definiteness problem which does not involve articles:
My early attempt to learn to play the guitar convinced me that a great deal of effort is required before he can achieve his goal.
The man who wrote this sentence experienced something personally (the difficulty of learning the guitar) which convinced him of the truth of a principle (Achieving goals requires effort.) which can be applied to all people. But the pronoun, 'he' is definite in the same sense that the
article, 'the' is definite: it can only be used in cases where the speaker and the listener share a reference, where they both have in mind the one specific person designated as 'he'. But in sentence 7, the speaker is presenting a principle as applying to all members of a class (human beings) in general. The notion of true indefiniteness would be expressed with the zero article plural, 'people'. Let's see how the sentence looks with the
My early attempt to learn the guitar convinced me that a great deal of effort is required before people can achieve their goals.
7a is a perfectly good correction of problem sentence 7; the zero-article plural accurately presents the indefiniteness. However, the plural expres-sion, 'people can achieve their goals', might suggest to the reader that groups of people are pursuing goals together. This isn't really what the writer meant to convey. To indicate individuals pursuing individual goals, we might be better off using a structure corresponding to the indefinite article. And just as the pronoun, 'he', has a definiteness corresponding to the definite article, 'the', so the pronoun, 'one', corresponds to the indefinite article, 'a / an'. So:
My early attempt to learn the guitar convinced me that a great deal of effort is required before one can achieve his goals. [or "... before a person can achieve his goals.]
Note that the expression, 'to learn the guitar [piano, trumpet, flute, kayagum, etc.]' is more conversational and idiomatic than the expression, 'to learn to play the guitar.'
As you can see, the pronoun, 'one', expresses the same level of definiteness as the indefinite article, 'a / an'. But notice that after we have used the pronoun, 'one' (or the phrase, 'a person'), we then use the 'definite' pronoun, 'he / him / his', the next time we refer to that hypothetical person. In other words, 'one', serves as an indefinite first reference, after which reference to that item is shared by both speaker and listener. So, after the first, 'indefinite' reference ('one'), all subsequent references will be 'definite' ('he / his / him' etc.). This corresponds exactly to the principle by which we use an indefinite article to introduce a new item into discourse, but use the definite article in subsequent references to that item. Can you see how the pronoun system has a hierarchy of definiteness corresponding to the article system?
As a matter of fact, the indefinite article, 'an / a', originated from the counting word, 'one'. Indeed, in virtually all languages that have article
systems, the indefinite article derives from the word used for 'one'. Can you guess the origin of the definite article, 'the'? 'The' derives from the same source as the demonstrative pronouns and adjectives, 'this', 'these', 'those' etc. And again, in virtually all languages which have definite articles, they are derived from demonstratives. As you know, demonstratives are used to point out a specific item. Understanding that indefinite articles are derived from the word used for 'one' and that definite articles come from demonstratives used for pointing out specific items should help you to understand the underlying notion of definiteness.
In next month's column, we will continue to look at the notion of definiteness, focusing more sharply on the use of definite and indefinite articles.