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Quick questions:

(1) The referent of the NP be either familiar within the discourse ... --- Why does it have to be 'within the discourse'? Can't it be familiar outside the discourse? I mean, what are the authors saying here? I'm confused. Does it matter whether it is familiar within the discourse or anywhere?

(2) Are the authors saying 'the referent of the NP be either familiar within the discourse to the hearer? (Yes, right?)

Research into the meaning of the English definite article has generally been approached from one of two perspectives, characterizable as 'familiarity' and 'uniqueness.' That is, felicitous use of the definite article has been argued to require that the referent of the NP be either familiar within the discourse or uniquely identifiable to the hearer. The vast majority of uses can be accounted for under either view, since an entity typically must be familiar in a given discourse in order to be identifiable to the hearer.

*NP: noun phrase, i.e. a noun with modifiers, or just a bare noun. (This annotation is added by Sssamy)

('Uniqueness, Familiarity, and the Definite Article in English' by Betty Birner and Gregory Ward)

  • That is, felicitous use of the definite article has been argued to require that the referent of the NP be either (a) familiar within the discourse or (b) uniquely identifiable to the hearer. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 18 '15 at 13:50
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    'within the discourse' means in the context of what has been recently said. So either in long passage or in an exchange between two (or more) people, so that the speaker and hearer (including the reader and other characters in the discourse) know the unique referent being talked about. – Mitch May 19 '15 at 11:58
  • Yes it can be "familiar outside the discourse." But the paper is summarizing views that hold that it must be "familiar within the discourse." The paper presents copious examples. – AmE speaker Feb 11 '17 at 19:18
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I think the writer intended to say "either" A or B:

A. An NP should be made definite/familiar within the same conversation or text in which the definite article is used to reference that NP.

Consider:

I met a woman the other day. The woman was very tall.

I use the to introduce woman because I have made the hearer familiar with the noun, woman, by first mentioning her as a woman I met the other day.

I suppose that the writer uses "within a discourse" because grammars often mention that we can use the definite article to refer backwards (as above) or sometimes forward within a conversation or text, in order to make a referent familiar/definite. Here's an example of a discourse in which the reader refers forward: As soon as I saw that the woman was carrying a green umbrella, I knew she was my neighbor, Gwen.

B. The NP should be identifiable to the hearer.

B would apparently apply when a hearer has been made familiar with a referent before it is referred to with the in a discourse. I suppose that being familiar with a referent before it is introduced in a discourse would make that referent identifiable to the reader or listener.

At first I thought "within the discourse" was intended to mean essentially that the listener (or reader) should be familiar with the referent at the time you mention the NP (or when the reader reads the NP) in the same way that we could say, legally, a person must be licensed when (at the time that) they are driving, but this does not make sense, because the meaning changes if we say that a driver must be license within a period in which he or she is driving.

It's poorly written, I'd say.

  • Thanks, but would you point me to the 'or' for 'either.' I'm a non-native speaker of English. I just don't understand the part after 'either,' which I think is part of 'either ... or ....' – Sssamy Jan 18 '15 at 12:55
  • Point you to it? The or linked to either is the word after discourse. Is that what you are asking? – Jim Reynolds Jan 18 '15 at 13:00
  • Ooops, sorry, Jim, I was referring to your post, your first paragraph. I couldn't see either what or what .... Thanks. – Sssamy Jan 19 '15 at 2:24
  • Ah. My oops. I saw that I did omit the "or"! I've now revised my answer substantially. – Jim Reynolds Jan 19 '15 at 7:06
  • Much obliged, Jim. I understand what 'within the discourse' means more. I guess the authors wanted it to be read as 'the NP be either 'made' familiar with in the discourse or be uniquely identifieable to the hearer. To me 'made familiar' and 'is familiar' is different. What do you think, Jim? – Sssamy Jan 19 '15 at 7:46
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(1) The referent of the NP be either familiar within the discourse ... --- Why does it have to be 'within the discourse'? Can't it be familiar outside the discourse? I mean, what are the authors saying here? I'm confused. Does it matter whether it is familiar within the discourse or anywhere?

Based on the articles that they cite as references, I think they're alluding to the idea of a discourse referent. Consider a donkey sentence like this:

Every farmer who owns a donkey beats it.

The word it here does not refer to any specific donkey; rather, it is "bound" to the phrase a donkey. So (by some analyses) it doesn't have a real-world referent, but only a discourse referent.

The above (very famous) example uses a definite pronoun, but the same sort of thing can apply with definite articles; for example:

Anyone who's owned both a dog and a cat will agree that the dog is more affectionate.

Again, there's no specific real-world dog that the phrase the dog is referring to; it merely refers back to what the phrase a dog referred to.


(2) Are the authors saying 'the referent of the NP be either familiar within the discourse to the hearer? (Yes, right?)

If you're asking about the sentence structure, then — no, the phrase "to the hearer" modifies only "uniquely identifiable", not "familiar within the discourse". So, for example, if you were to re-order the two perspectives they mention, you would get "[…] that the referent of the NP be either uniquely identifiable to the hearer or familiar within the discourse", not "[…] that the referent of the NP be either uniquely identifiable or familiar within the discourse to the hearer".

That said, this is probably a distinction without a difference. If something has been introduced in the discourse, then it will naturally be familiar to the hearer (or at least, no one seems to have considered the possibility that speakers might avoid the definite article if they perceive that their interlocutors are confused).

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