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Okay, this might come across as a fairly stupid question, yet I have to know this. Does anyone know what the communicative function of 'the article' is?

For example, if we consider 'must' and 'have to', the communicative function could be 'Talking about obligation'. I need something similar to this for the article, but I can't come up with anything.

Any help is appreciated!

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You’re going to have to cite actual source that are using this. –  tchrist Apr 21 '13 at 15:22
What is the article? Do you mean the definite article? or do you mean any of the set of articles {a, an, the}? –  Matt Эллен Apr 22 '13 at 12:06
Any of the set of articles :) –  Michiel Standaert Apr 22 '13 at 15:49
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closed as not a real question by MετάEd, Matt Эллен, tchrist, Kristina Lopez, FumbleFingers Apr 24 '13 at 13:05

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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

What is by many considered the primary function of articles is distinguishing between new references (focus, a(n)) on one hand, and references to things that the audience already knows are part of the topic of the utterance on the other (topic, the). With a(n), this thing hasn't been mentioned before; with the, you already know which thing the speaker is referring to. Of course this is a bit of a simplification.

A secondary function of articles is to distinguish between countable and uncountable singular nouns, as in I like beer and I'd like a beer. As such, it functions much like the number one.

Thirdly, there are countless idiomatic expressions using articles.

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Thanks, I can really work with this! :) –  Michiel Standaert Apr 21 '13 at 15:28
@MichielStandaert: Graag gedaan! –  Cerberus Apr 21 '13 at 17:06
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There is no main communicative function for articles. As Cerberus says, there is a conventional usage, but there are many others as well.

The problem is that no single function is dominant; articles don't really have any meaning, so they're available -- and used -- for just about any purpose. For instance,

  • Generic noun phrases use articles to distinguish three types of genericity.
  • Many titles include The as part of a name:
    The Ohio State University, The University of Michigan, The Missouri River, The Hague
  • As Cerberus also says, there are countless (often senseless, and normally not definite) idioms, e.g.
    the wrong number, get the hell out, in the hospital (US), down the way, quite the find, etc.

So it's important to remember that the conventional use that Cerberus presents is only one of many, and it's not necessarily the most frequent one. Conventions like that are merely places to vary from in one's language use, and we've been varying quite a lot in English.

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I don't think we disagree on the facts. But the concept of "dominance" is key: it is hard to establish or measure. I had a situation in mind where you have as little context and as little idiomaticity as possible, using different articles before one of the most common words in a language, such as English thing. Now take I see a/the/<zero> thing. I believe the first thing most people will notice is that <zero> is ungrammatical and the provokes the question, "what thing?", which points to topicality. Based on frequency of use, "dominance" may lie elsewhere, though. –  Cerberus Apr 21 '13 at 18:31
Yeah, that's the prototype situation, the default case you fall back on if there isn't enough other information to identify the construction. But, as you say, it's kinda hard to come by reliable figures. I will say, though, that the plethora of daily article questions and article mistakes here at ELU.SE shows that the usage is not well understood, whether it's prototypic or not. –  John Lawler Apr 21 '13 at 18:48
Fair enough...but I think many of those questions are about idiomatic usage exactly because it is less predictable than topicality, even though the latter mostly happens subconsciously. In other words, the most basic part can be the easiest part, but that doesn't make it less "important". An analogy: we have more questions like "how is the majestic plural we used?" or "does we include you?" than "does we refer to the first or the second person plural?", and yet I would consider the answer to the latter "primary" for the word we, whatever that means. –  Cerberus Apr 21 '13 at 21:00
My intuition is that not only articles, but all other determiners have multiple functions; they are like gadgets that make language as flexible as possible on a limited space –  Theta30 Sep 2 '13 at 8:27
There is often a semantic core meaning for these little words -- articles, particles, prepositions, conjunctions, quantifiers, determiners, auxiliaries --- that we've called to syntactic duty to substitute for the lost paradigms. But the grammatical usages don't have much meaning, and are idiomatic, and there are lots of them, and they're not at all regular or organized. Anything that's getting contracted has found a niche and is adapting to it; but the global spread of English has provided for some different biomes, and different adaptations. What we can do about that? –  John Lawler Sep 2 '13 at 13:28
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