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Can someone explain the use of determiners (words like some or the) for the word beans in the following dialogue:

Aki: Lisa, here're some beans.

Lisa: Why are you giving me beans?

Aki: Because it's Setsubun today. It means the "Coming of Spring".

Lisa: OK, but why the beans?

Aki: We throw beans on this day so that bad luck will leave and good luck will come in.

In particular, I'd like to know:

  1. Why does Lisa drop the determiner (why are you giving me ø beans) when she asks her first question?
  2. Why does Lisa then introduce a determiner (why the beans) when she repeats her question?
  3. Aki also drops the determiner (we throw ø beans) when she explains the custom. Is it for the same reason as 1, or for an entirely different reason?
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2 Answers 2

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Question 1 - She doesn't need to say "the beans", because it really doesn't matter which beans she's getting. Whether Aki gives her those beans, or some different beans, the question would still be the same. So "the" would be unnecessary. And she could say "some beans", but this would be repeating what Aki had already said. Again, unnecessary.

Question 2 - If she didn't say "the", it would imply that the question related to beans in general ("why beans but not lentils for Setsubun"); but with "the", it really just means "why did you give me those beans".

Question 3 - If the beans that get thrown were the "special holy beans of Setsubia, which are removed from the sacred vial every Setsubun", we might say "we throw the beans". But no, any beans will do; so Aki just says "we throw beans". She could also say "we throw some beans, but not too many", but because she doesn't care about the quantity, she doesn't need to say "some'.

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I've marked this answer as the accepted one, because David makes the extra point that why beans? could be considered as meaning something like why beans and not lentils? If anyone can expand on this point, I'd really like to know about it. –  Pitarou Feb 3 '12 at 5:59

When Lisa asks her first question, she doesn’t use a determiner (or rather she uses what is known as the ‘zero’ article) because she is making a generic reference. The ‘zero’ article is used in this way to describe both plural and uncountable nouns where what is meant is the class of such things as a whole. Aki uses the ‘zero’ article for the same reason.

Lisa uses the definite article when she repeats her question because beans has already been mentioned. The definite article is used when both speaker and listener know what is being referred to and beans has already been mentioned in the conversation. (However, Lisa could just as well have used the ‘zero’ article as well for the same reason that it’s used in the other two sentences.)

If you find this confusing, you’re not alone. Non-native speakers of English whose own languages have no articles nearly always find them difficult.

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Thanks for your clear answer. However, I didn't mark it as accepted because I'm not sure that Lisa could have dropped the definite article in why the beans? without introducing ambiguity. Please see David Wallace's answer. If there is more you could say on the matter, I'd really like to hear about it. –  Pitarou Feb 3 '12 at 6:03
    
@Pitarou: Had Lisa used the ‘zero’ article in her second question she would indeed have been asking why she was being offered beans rather than anything else. I don’t think there would be any ambiguity. In fact, on re-reading the dialogue, I think it’s more likely that that’s what someone would say in those circumstances. –  Barrie England Feb 3 '12 at 9:12

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