Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The takes either a singular or a plural subject. A/an only takes the singular.

When we pluralize a noun preceded by an indefinite article, we simply drop the article (sometimes replacing it with some). Why is this?

share|improve this question
6  
How are we supposed to answer why something isn't? –  MrHen Jul 23 '11 at 19:28
1  
@MrHen: Colin Fine says Maori has a plural indefinite article, so it's not like the concept is meaningless. And the fact that we call the/a/an the definite/indefinite articles suggests they have much in common. In which case it's potentially enlightening to examine things they don't have in common, such as the ability to take a plural subject. –  FumbleFingers Jul 24 '11 at 3:09
1  
@Alain: You must undelete your answer! It was excellent: I was going to answer something like that. P.S. The Greeks did have articles, just no indefinite ones. –  Cerberus Jul 24 '11 at 3:36
1  
@MrHen: There can be reasons why, contrary to what one might expect, a certain feature never developed. In this case, Alain's deleted answer explain it it very nicely and informatively, I should think. –  Cerberus Jul 24 '11 at 15:19
    
As far as I know, most Latin-derived languages have separate singular and plural definite and indefinite articles. It's a common feature in (some) indoeuropean languages. –  CesarGon Jul 24 '11 at 15:24
show 5 more comments

8 Answers

up vote 25 down vote accepted

In most languages indefinite articles stem from that language's word for one. For instance in French un, or in German ein, In Italian and Spanish uno or in Portuguese um.

English is no exception: an was derived from one. Note that an was the original indefinite article; the shorter a came later when the final "n" was dropped before consonants.

In some of the languages I mentioned above, the plural form of the indefinite articles is simply formed by applying the noun plural inflection: unos/unas or uns/umas.

In others, such as German and Italian, there is no plural form to the indefinite article. Italian use the partitive article degli/delle as a substitute and this is probably also the origin of the French plural form des.

For some reason English did not go through this last step either. To understand why we need to go back to the way Old English solved the problem.

In Old English adjectives have a different declension depending on whether the noun they qualify is determined or not.

"The glad man" reads

se glæd guma

whereas, "a happy man" is:

glæda guma

As one can see, only the adjective changes.
For one given adjective, you could therefore have different inflections depending on:
- the noun gender (masculine, feminine, neuter)
- the noun being singular or plural
- the four cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative)
- whether the reference is definite or indefinite.
So that the same adjective would have to follow either the "definite" declension or one of three "indefinite" declensions.

þa glædan guman

Edit
<conjecture>
The theory I'm trying to check (community please feel free to edit) is that in various languages (Icelandic for a language very close to Old English or Romanian) the article is added as a suffix to the noun. Then it often "detaches" and passes in front of the noun. Icelandic is half way through for the definite article in that matter.

As for the Old English indefinite article, my conjecture is that the process never went through for a number of possible reasons:
- The "loss of inflection" of early Middle English won the race
- The plural of "an" was not easy to evolve at that time (the Romance "-s" plural had not imposed itself yet).
</conjecture>

But the need is still there, just as in any other language where a specific word emerged for the plural indefinite article. This gap is filled by placeholders such as some or a number of.

Most linguist agree that Proto Indo European did not use articles. Latin does not have any kind of article, and Ancient Greek arguably had no indefinite article either - it was using something very much like present-day English some (τις - "a certain"). And I believe that Old German did not have any article either.

It is a very remarkable fact that articles appeared in many modern Indo European languages in a largely mutually independent yet very similar manner. My feeling is that their emergence compensates for the gradual loss of inflection in these languages. But then present-day German is a powerful counterexample...

share|improve this answer
    
I don't believe that German has a plural form of indefinite articles (einem is dative singular), but Spanish and Catalan (two languages I don't know) apparently do. –  Peter Shor Jul 24 '11 at 17:22
    
@PeterShor, Thanks. I corrected. Actually Italian doesn't have any plural article either. As for German I'll be tempted to use "einige" (which is also present in Old English (ænig) and actually evolved into "any"). Thx community ;-) –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jul 24 '11 at 17:49
1  
@Peter Shor: Indeed, Spanish, Catalan and Galician do have plural indefinite articles. –  CesarGon Jul 24 '11 at 21:33
    
Yay! Excellent. // Your theory that articles developed to compensate for loss of inflection may be true for the indefinite article; for definite articles, it may still be true, but Greek weakens it a bit (elaborate inflection but plentiful definite articles). // As to your theory about articles having originally been suffixes: surely that applies only to those few languages you mentioned? // German has three types of adject. inflection, roughly 1. after definite article, 2. after indefinite article, 3. without article. Dutch has 1. definite, 2. indefinite/without. Greek had no different types. –  Cerberus Jul 25 '11 at 1:52
    
@Cerberus. From what I've seen the weak adjectives inflection for definite nouns is a Germanic innovation that can be observed in many present and ancient languages - with variations (Old English, German, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic etc). In many cases the definite article is enclitic and sometimes doubles with a separate proclitic demonstrative. My feeling is that if this complex inflectional system disappears ("weakens" ;-), then the proclitic demonstrative becomes more frequent/necessary, possibly influenced by the enclitic article. In short it "passes in front".[...] –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jul 25 '11 at 3:50
show 4 more comments

As pointed out elsewhere, language is the result of an evolutionary process, not logical design.

The origins of the word "the" aren't connected with those of "a/an", so there's no reason why they should share all characteristics.

As OP says, "some" can function as a kind of 'plural' for "a/an". So can "a few", "a number of", etc. In some contexts, "any" can be used as the pluralised version of "a/an". I'm not overly concerned about the scope of the term "indefinite article" – it's just a (sometimes enlightening) name we often use, not a 'pre-existing' class into which any given word either falls or doesn't.

It's not as if our language is seriously restricted by not allowing for "a/an" to be used of multiple subjects. And after all, in some contexts "a" can effectively refer to multiple subjects where "the" implies a single one...

"A president should be allowed to say he 'screwed up', surely?"

"I'm not talking about a president, the president shouldn't have said that!"

LATER: More specifically addressing OP's question as to why "a/an" can't be pluralised the same as "the". Firstly, note that in the above example, "a" is effectively pluralised – as becomes clear when you realise it means "presidents in general" rather than "a randomly selected president".

Secondly, consider "Recipe: Mix some cloves, a cinnamon stick, and apples in a bowl". There's no need for an article when we pluralise "an apple" there.

Thirdly, as @Robusto implies, some/many/most/all contexts where you would use the indefinite article in reference to "one of it" simply don't lead to meaningful contexts if there is more than one of it.

Fourthly, "a" can mean exactly "one", particularly in contexts associated with 'countability' (so can "the", but more in the context of 'identification'). This makes us leery of using it around plural subjects, because we sense it sits uneasily with 'one-ness' of "a".

share|improve this answer
    
So it's just the randomness in language formation? There's no logical reason for it? –  Daniel Jul 23 '11 at 16:46
    
Umm. One of the forces affecting language change is in fact logic - in various ways including the bias towards adopting forms that seem to correspond to our logical view of the world, and discarding those that don't. Which is why English, for example, has managed to ditch a lot of the 'sexual gender' distinctions made irrelevantly in lots of other languages. –  FumbleFingers Jul 23 '11 at 16:51
    
So would you say that we should introduce a plural indefinite article, to be more logical? –  Daniel Jul 23 '11 at 16:57
1  
Nowhere near as much as I would say we should introduce a gender-neutral personal pronoun to substitute for his/hers, and that ain't gonna happen any time soon. I didn't say it's overridingly important that language be logical; just that logical considerations do affect its evolution sometimes. I'm mainly a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist. –  FumbleFingers Jul 23 '11 at 17:03
1  
Somewhat conveniently, you fail to mention that we get along just fine without a plural indefinite article. –  Robusto Jul 23 '11 at 18:37
show 7 more comments

When you are referring to a specific item or specific items, you use "the", like

I have the steak.

or

I have the steaks.

When you are referring to a "nonspecific" item, you use "a" for the singular, like

I have a steak.

If you were to leave out "a", you would get

I have steak.

How many steaks do you have? One massive steak? Two steaks? Exactly π steaks? 4/5 of a steak? Without the article, "steak" in this example becomes a "non-counted" entity; you aren't indicating anything about whether there are discrete items. In

I have a steak.

you are referring to a collection of discrete items. When you say

I have steaks.

though, it is clear that you are referring to discrete items. If "steaks" is plural, you have to be able to count them and therefore have to have more than one discrete item. The article isn't necessary. However, you can say

I have some steaks.

According to the Wikipedia entry for "article (grammar)", "The articles in the English language are the and a/an, and (in some contexts) some." (emphasis added) In the case of talking about "indefinite objects", the article isn't needed to show that you are talking about discrete items or specific items.

share|improve this answer
2  
This in no wise answers the question, except for your last paragraph, which quotes an entirely unreferenced opinion in Wikipedia. (I'm not saying it is wrong, just that Wikipedia is reliable only where it is referenced). I'm sure @drm65 knows all you are saying, but is asking Why? My answer is with FumbleFingers: because it doesn't. It is probably not a coincidence that AFAIK no European language has a plural indefinite article: Maori is an example of a language which has. –  Colin Fine Jul 24 '11 at 0:20
1  
@Colin: In a number of different European languages (English, German, French, Hungarian), the indefinite article comes from the word for 1, which explains why it doesn't pluralize. It doesn't seem likely to me that this simultaneous evolution could have been a coincidence, although it is indeed remarkably natural. –  Peter Shor Jul 24 '11 at 15:15
    
@Colin: Catalan seems to be a European language with indefinite articles in the plural, and also one which gives a counterexample to my previous comment. –  Peter Shor Jul 24 '11 at 15:32
    
@Peter Shor: As I said somewhere else, you don't need to look at Catalan (which is a correct example); Spanish has indefinite articles in the plural as well and is likely to be better known here. –  CesarGon Jul 29 '11 at 0:43
    
@compman: I think you mean "discrete" –  phoog Sep 27 '11 at 15:07
add comment

It appears that Old English did not have any indefinite articles. And from Wikipedia:

English uses a/an, from the Old English forms of the number 'one', as its primary indefinite article.

If a/an was derived from an, which was derived from the number one, there logically wouldn't be any corresponding derivation of a plural indefinite article. So modern English doesn't have one.

share|improve this answer
1  
The Old English form of the modern English "this guy" meaning "a guy" as in "So, this guy walks into a bar..." was "sum man", and "sum" was declined as an adjective. –  Tim Jul 24 '11 at 14:46
    
By "form" I should better have written "counterpart". –  Tim Jul 24 '11 at 15:05
add comment

I realize that some is an effective substitute for plural a, but in that case, why is it not considered to be an indefinite article?

Because in English the indefinite articles are an and a; some, a, an, the, and other words are classified as determiners.
It just a matter of classification; for example, the NOAD copy that comes with Mac OS X 10.6 ("New Oxford American Dictionary 2nd edition © 2005 by Oxford University Press, Inc.") classifies a and the as adjectives.

a /eɪ/ (an before a vowel sound) [called the indefinite article]
adjective
1. used when referring to someone or something for the first time in a text or conversation: "a man came out of the room"; "it has been an honor to have you"; "we need people with a knowledge of languages."

the /ði/ /ð(ə)/ /ði/ [called the definite article]
adjective
1. denoting one or more people or things already mentioned or assumed to be common knowledge: "what's the matter?"; "call the doctor"; "the phone rang."

The NOAD that comes with the Mac OS X 10.7 ("New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc.") defines the articles as determiners.

share|improve this answer
    
This doesn't answer the question. --"Why aren't dogs considered to be reptiles?" --"Because reptiles are (insert exhaustive list of reptiles here)." To answer the question, we need to establish definitions for "determiner" and "indefinite article", and establish why "a/an" meets the criteria for both, while "some" fails to meet the criteria for "indefinite article" –  phoog Sep 27 '11 at 15:21
add comment

Probably because you don't need an article with plural nouns.

Singular:

A unicorn is a mythical beast.

Plural:

Unicorns are mythical beasts.

You would use definite plural pronouns if you want to refer to a specific group within a larger set.

These unicorns are mythical. Those unicorns are real.

share|improve this answer
5  
But if we didn't have any singular indefinite articles (as in some languages), we wouldn't need them, either. I'm not asking whether we need them; I'm asking why we have one and not the other. Both are equally optional. –  Daniel Jul 23 '11 at 16:33
1  
Just to cloud the issue a bit more, I see nothing wrong with saying "The unicorn is a mythical beast". :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 23 '11 at 16:54
    
@drm65: If we didn't have a use for them, we wouldn't have them. That's as much as you can say. A language has what it finds useful to have. Obviously, in English both are not needed, else we would have them. –  Robusto Jul 23 '11 at 18:34
    
@FumbleFingers: That is not germane to the issue. No one disputes that you can use the definite article to construct a similar sentence. –  Robusto Jul 23 '11 at 18:35
3  
I didn't raise the possibility of interchanging "the" and "a" to refute anything said or implied. Just to suggest possible further complexity in that we might use "the" instead of pluralised "a". Your reaction seems unduly curt and dismissive. –  FumbleFingers Jul 23 '11 at 19:02
add comment

The plural indefinite is probably not in use because it would be superfluous given other more efficent ways of expressing the notion of indefinite.

We use spoons to eat our soup in this land, though in other lands men drink straight from the bowl.

We use [plural indefinite article] spoons to eat our soup in this land...

We use a spoon to eat our soup, don't we, Johnny?

share|improve this answer
1  
If this were relevant, why should we have a singular indefinite article? This is not an answer, but a restatement of the question. –  Colin Fine Jul 24 '11 at 23:09
add comment

In English, we do not inflect adjectives by number. In particular, we do not inflect articles by number. (Unlike French ... l'haricot vert and les haricots verts.)

share|improve this answer
2  
True enough, but that doesn't have much to do with the question. Adjectives, though not inflected by number, are able to modify either singular or plural subjects. The indefinite article is also not inflected by number, but unlike common adjectives it is not able to modify plural subjects. My question was: why not? –  Daniel Jul 23 '11 at 17:54
2  
I wonder. A with plural, collective... "A government have the right to do that." Too strange. –  GEdgar Jul 23 '11 at 19:13
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.