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I'm trying to break down the english language in a computer program. Having a hard time figuring out those two. I think that they should be adjectives though because they are descriptive as in

a watermelon - any random watermelon

the watermelon - some specific watermelon

and also because I can't find any other use for them. When I learned english in school, I think my teacher called them something like "articles" (direct translation, don't know the english for it) but that doesn't help me at all.

  • Back in school I learned that articles are adjectives. – GEdgar Feb 4 '16 at 15:05
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    It all comes down to how narrowly one defines adjective. Some grammarians impose a lot of requirements— for them to call a word an adjective it must have a comparative form, or be usable as a predicate complement, or both and more. Others group articles and some words traditionally classed as pronouns (e.g. demonstratives) in a separate class known as determiners. – choster Feb 4 '16 at 19:44
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Ultimately "a/an" and "the" are adjectives. Their function is not describing, but selective, indicating whether the following noun is something known or unknown to the person spoken to.

As these adjectives have a special function (with a special information) they have a special name: articles.

The definite article is a weakened form of an old demonstrative adjective now represented by "that". The indefinite article a or an is a reduced form of the numeral one. The last two sentences are from: Curme, English Grammar. (Numerals are also special adjectives answering the question how many.)

In some grammars there is a chapter about articles, in some grammars the articles are dealt with in the chapter adjectives, depending on whether the author sees the articles as a word class of their own or not.

  • Do you have a twentieth-first century grammar to back that claim up with? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Feb 4 '16 at 19:11
  • No, a grammar is not necessary, if one knows the development of Latin ille/illa to French le/la (definite article) and Latin unus/una to French un et une (indefinite article). The development for German and English was similar, eg Latin unus, una is parallel to German ein, eine and English an and the shortened form a. – rogermue Feb 4 '16 at 19:47
  • But none of those are adjectives. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Feb 4 '16 at 19:51
  • What is your view? Probably that of CGEL. – rogermue Feb 4 '16 at 19:57
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    Here's why: Every has no comparative form. It can't be used as a Complement of the verb BE. It isn't modifiable by the adverb very. It doesn't co-ordinate with real adjectives. It is compulsorily followed by a noun. It is a word like a, not a word like clever. If you remove it from a noun phrase the phrase will be ungrammatical. In addition adverbs cannot modify premodify nouns. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Feb 4 '16 at 20:02
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They're called articles; "a" (used in front of a noun that begins with a consonant) and "an" (used in front of a noun the begins with a vowel) are known as indefinite articles while "the" is the definite article

You're correct that the indefinite article is used to refer to something non-specific, while the definite article is used to refer to a particular entity. So

A watermelon

Would indeed simply be referring to any random watermelon, and

The watermelon

Would refer to a specific watermelon, probably one that was already being discussed or had been discussed recently, so as to provide context.

As you said you were struggling to find a use for them, here's another example:

A book is fun to read.

Here I'm simply saying that reading books is fun, and not talking about any particular book.

The book is fun to read.

Here, though, I'm talking about a specific book. I'm only saying that book is fun to read, not any others.

Note that articles exist to define nouns as specific or non-specific, and are different from adjectives because they don't describe the noun itself.

  • But, for the OP, articles are more like adjectives than they are like any other part of speech. I'd call them a very specific subclass of adjectives. To say an article is not an adjective is like saying a whale is not a mammal. Historically, articles usually start off in anarthrous languages (like Latin) as adjectives ('ille/illa (that) -> 'le/il/el/la' (the)). – Mitch Feb 4 '16 at 14:29
  • @Mitch They were'nt adjectives either. You can't just ask "does my phlogiston ebb aimlessly through my body" and expect a yes answer because you want one. It doesn't. We have hearts that pump blood round our body on a specific route. You can't make this different by wanting it to be. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Feb 4 '16 at 19:09
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    @Mitch They're not perfect adjectives in the same way that nouns and verbs aren't perfect adjectives :D Here's some qualifying data/problems: Every has no comparative form. It can't be used as Complement of the verb BE. It isn't modifiable by the adverb very. It doesn't co-ordinate with real adjectives. It is compulsorily followed by a noun. It is a word like a, not a word like clever. If you remove it from a noun phrase the phrase will be ungrammatical. In addition adverbs cannot premodify nouns. Adjectives can function as Subjects of specifying BE, every can't ... (there's more) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Feb 4 '16 at 21:32
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    @JohnClifford Thanks, I might nick that, if that's ok? That's quite a good test for students. What you're noticing there is that adjectives can be used as Predicative Complements (and articles and other determiners can't) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Feb 4 '16 at 23:33
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    @Araucaria Be my guest. – John Clifford Feb 4 '16 at 23:34

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