Writers' Clinic V: Definiteness Part 2
In last month's column, I tried to show that the problem of definiteness in English involves more than simply selecting between the use of definite and indefinite articles. I illustrated various ways, besides the article system, in which English indicates degrees of definiteness. In particular, I pointed out how true indefiniteness is often indicated by the use of a plural noun with no article at all, and that failure to grasp this structure is the root of many Korean-English problems. By way of review, consider this sentence, taken from the English abstract of a Ph.D. thesis in economics:
The Korean government's policy of regulating bank loans to encourage certain industries is not unique; there is also a priority loan in an advanced country.
The writer is clearly not referring to one specific priority loan in one specific advanced country; the reference is obviously indefinite. But, by using indefinite articles ('a', 'an') and singular nouns ('loan', 'country'), the writer fails to convey true indefiniteness. Like so many Koreans writing in English, he doesn't realize that such situations of true indefiniteness are expressed with the 'zero-article plural' structure. We can correct the sentence as:
The Korean government's policy of regulating bank loans to encourage certain industries is not unique; there are also priority loans in advanced countries.
Again, last month's column went to some length to demonstrate that there is more to the problem of definiteness than simply selecting between the use of 'a' and 'the'. However, it must be admitted that the greatest number of Korean-English writing mistakes involving definiteness do concern either the use of the incorrect article or failure to use any article at all where one is required. This month's column will look at a few typical examples of such problems. Let's start with these two examples, both taken from the same page of an English-language newspaper in Korea:
Speaking to the inaugural session of 299-member unicameral National Assembly, President Roh said...
Kim Dae-jung... appeared elated as he stepped into the legislature building with gilded badge pinned to his lapel.
Here are two cases where singular nouns ('Assembly', 'badge') have been left standing alone, without any articles or other determiners. As I often tell my students, English does not like to leave singular nouns standing alone without determiners; they seem 'undressed'. With certain important exceptions, English avoids such 'naked' singular nouns. So, how shall we 'dress' these nouns?
In sentence 2, it is obvious that the writer is referring to one specific Assembly; it is definite and specific in his mind, and, he assumes, in the minds of his readers. After all, how many other '299-member unicameral National Assemblies' are there? So, we must use a definite article to 'dress' this 'unique, specific' noun:
Speaking to the inaugural session of the 299-member unicameral National Assembly, President Roh said...
In fact, even without the extra, specifying informatic.n (7299-member unicameral'), the reference, 'National Assembly' would be a unique specific reference. In a Korean newspaper for a Korean audience, the words, 'National Assembly' clearly refer to an entity which is unique and specific in the minds of the writer and his intended readers.
I keep using the expression, 'unique specific reference' or 'shared specific reference for the writer (speaker) and the readers (listeners)' when I describe the sort of definiteness which attracts a definite article. Another way of describing it is as 'old information'. When the writer mentions 'National Assembly', he is not introducing a new item into the readers' minds. Rather, he is reminding them of an item that is already in their memories. In that sense, definite articles indicate 'old information'.
Now look at the 'naked' singular noun in sentence 3. Does the word, 'badge,' refer to a specific, unique item that is already present in your (the reader's) mind? I don't think so. Rather, it is an item of 'new information' that the writer is presenting to us for the first time. Of course we have in our minds an image of the general category, 'badges'. The writer is introducing a new item to us by telling us it is 'one example of the general category of 'badges'. To introduce 'new information' and designate it as 'one example of a general category', we use an indefinite article:
Kim Dae-jung... appeared elated as he stepped into the legislature building with a gilded badge pinned to his lapel.
Looking at the other nouns in that corrected sentence can teach us several other useful things about articles. The first noun, 'Kim Dae-jung,' is a proper name; in general, English uses no articles with proper names.
The next noun, 'legislature building', written in a Korean newspaper for a Korean readership, obviously makes reference to a unique, specific item. It is unique and specific in the minds of a certain social group, in this case, Koreans. Of course, in another social community, the USA, for example,
'legislature building' would invoke a different shared sperific reference, the capitol building in Washington. Anyhow, as long as the writer/speaker is in the same social group as his readers/listeners, such 'shared specific reference for a certain social group' refers to 'old information' and therefore attracts the definite article. Often the social group is very small. For example, if you own a cat and you say to your husband, "Don't forget to feed the cat tonight," you are referring to a specific cat, and that reference is shared by a very small social group: your husband and you. But if you are talking about the same cat to somebody outside that very small social group, you could not use the definite article because the reference is not shared. It would not be 'the cat', but simply 'a cat': "My husband and I have a cute little cat."
The other noun in the sentence, 'lapel,' is not 'naked' because it is attached to the possessive word, 'his'. Such possessives act as determiners for nouns, and in the presence of such determiners, no articles are used.
So, those two sample problem sentences give you a sense of the essential functions of definite and indefinite articles, and a quick glimpse of some important principles governing the use of articles. But as you know from experience, there are hidden complexities and traps, so let's see some of the problems that come up. Consider these two sentences, both produced by my own advanced-level students:
Because of its extreme complexity, it was very difficult topic to handle in such a short article.
That movie was exceptionally interesting and informative one.
In a strictly grammatical sense, the problem in these two sentences is the same as in sentences 3 and 4: singular nouns are left 'naked', without any determiners or articles. What happens, I think, is that when students use adjectival expressions ("very difficult to handle," "exceptionally interest-ing and informative"), they forget about the noun they are leaving 'naked'. An adjective or adjectival phrase is generally not sufficient to 'dress' a singular noun. Thus, sentence 5 should be corrected as:
Because of its extreme complexity, it was a very difficult topic to handle in such a short article.
Again, the way to avoid such mistakes is to be on the lookout for 'naked' singular nouns. They are especially fond of hiding behind adjectival expressions.
Applying the same principle, you might be tempted to correct sentence 6 as "The movie was an exceptionally interesting and informative one." That would be a perfectly grammatical sentence and it does eliminate the problem of the 'naked' noun. But it is a very awkward, unnatural sentence.
As a matter of fact, Koreans writing in English often seem to create extra problems for themselves by using meaningless 'dummy' nouns and pronouns in sentences which native speakers would express with attributive or predicate adjectives. Sentence 6 is a typical example. All the writer is trying to do is to attribute certain qualities (exceptionally interesting and informative) to a certain item (that movie). A native speaker of English would express this idea by attaching the adjectival phrase to the noun in either an attributive relationship:
That was an exceptionally interesting and informative movie. or a predicate relationship:
or a predicate relationship:
That movie was exceptionally interesting and informative.
So, try to avoid using 'dummy' nominal expressions like 'one' when you are expressing an essentially adjectival relationship.
There is another definiteness problem in which Koreans seem to make unnecessary difficulties for themselves when writing English. Consider these two examples:
Bowling is one of the enjoyable and inexpensive sports.
When he finished university, he took a job with one of the stock investment companies.
If you think about what the writer of sentence 7 was trying to express, I think you'll agree that the intent is essentially adjectival. He is giving us his ideas about the qualities he associates with bowling. The fact that bowling is a 'sport', while true, is not what he wants to tell us. He assumes we already realize that bowling is a sport; his intention is to tell us what kind of sport it is, that is, he wants to attribute some qualities to that sport. The expression, 'X is one of the Y,' is used to express the idea that X is one member of a particular group, Y, a group which is unique and specific in the minds of both the writer/speaker and the reader/listener. But I don't really think that 'the enjoyable and inexpensive sports' is such a group. I think the writer of sentence 7 did not really intend to place the sport, bowling, in a certain group of sports, but rather to ascribe certain qualities to that sport. A native speaker would use an adjectival pattern, calling for an indefinite article with the attributive adjective:
Bowling is an enjoyable and inexpensive sport.
And, since it really goes without saying that bowling is a sport (What else could it be, a food... an animal?), we could simply attach the qualities to the item in a predicate-adjective structure:
Bowling is enjoyable and inexpensive.
In sentence 8, I will admit that the writer is placing a certain item within a group, rather than describing its qualities. But there is nothing unique or special about the group itself. The writer is clearly trying to express a notion of indefiniteness: one item (company) which is a member of a general category (stock investment companies). The particular stock invest-ment company he is referring to is probably unique and specific in his own mind (i.e., is 'old information'), but is not yet specific in the minds of the readers (i.e. is 'new information'). In short, it is precisely the sort of situation where we use an indefinite article:
When he finished university, he took a job with a stock investment company.
Problem sentence 8 is just one example of an extremely common pattern of Korean-English errors in which 'one of the (plural noun)' is used where a native English speaker would use 'a/an (singular noun)'. TO reinforce this point, please correct the following sentence, taken from the promotional brochure of a Korean company that does extensive business abroad:
Our company is one of the medium-sized Korean construction companies.
In this sentence, when the writer writes 'the medium-sized Korean construction companies', is he really reminding you, the reader, of some specific, unique item in your memory, some 'old information'? I don't think so. Rather, he is attempting to 'define' the nature, or type of the item he is describing (our company) by describing some of its qualities (Korean, medium-sized, dealing with construction), and mentioning it as one item in a general category (companies). This sort of definitional process, where the focus is on the item being defined, not on the specificity of the group it belongs to, is, again, precisely the sort of situation in which indefinite articles are used:
Our company is a medium-sized Korean construction company.
As a general rule, when your basic intent is to define an item, use the indefinite article structure: "X is a/an (noun)".
Now you're probably wondering when it is correct to use the "X is one of the (plural noun)" structure. Well, here are a few examples of how I would use it:
a) This is one of the books that were recommended in that article I gave you last week.
b) He is one of the writers who have been mentioned as candidates for the Nobel Prize.
c) She is one of the tallest women I have met in Korea.
d) I consider this sonata one of the more difficult of Chopin's piano pieces.
As the first two examples show, we use the 'one of the (plural noun)' structure to place an item in a group when that group is not some 'general category', but is unique and highly specific in the minds of both the writer/speaker and readers/listeners. In such cases (as the first two examples illustrate), the writer/speaker is calling specific attention to the group, which usually requires fairly complex sentence structure (in these two cases, relative clauses). I think you'll agree that in those two examples,
the focus is on the specificity of the group into which the item is being placed.
Example sentences 'c' and 'd' are comparative. The speaker/writer of 'c' is comparing a certain woman to other women in Korea in terms of height. Sentence 'd' compares a certain sonata to other Chopin piano compositions in terms of difficulty. So, these sentences are doing something more complex than simply placing an item within a group. They are comparing that item to others in the group; they are establishing a ranking.
As you can see, then, the "one of the (plural noun)" structure has rather special and complex functions. The important point is that we do not use it when we are simply attributing qualities to or defining an item. When your basic intent is to define an item, use the indefinite article structure: "X is a/an (noun)".
Now take a look at these two problem sentences, the first generously supplied by one of my own advanced-level students, the second from the abstract of a Master's thesis:
He spoke about his trip to Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, but his presentation didn't give me any impression of three countries.
Further efforts at mutual understanding by South and North Korea are needed before two countries can be unified.
The problem is the same in both of these sentences. As I keep stressing, the 'zero-article plural' structure is used to convey the idea of true indefiniteness. In these sentences, the use of the plural noun, 'countries',
without any article, suggests that sort of indefiniteness. But are the references really indefinite? Hardly. In sentence 9, the three countries are a very specific and shared reference for the writer and the readers since they have been explicitly named earlier in the sentence. Since 'three countries' refers to definite, specific 'old information' (Japan, Australia,
and New Zealand), the definite article is required. In exactly the same way,
'two countries' in sentence 10 refers to two very specific countries, present in our minds because the writer has already referred to them. These senten-ces, then, must be corrected to reflect the definiteness of these references:
He spoke about his trip to Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, but his presentation didn't give me any impression of the [or 'those'] three countries.
Further efforts at mutual understanding by South and North Korea are needed before the two countries can be unified.