The category of article determination shows, or, determines the relations of the referent of the noun to the other referents of the same class. The article is a determiner, a unit which determines a noun, but unlike other determiners (the lexical means of determination: this, that, some, any, very, certain, kind of, etc.), it is so general, that it has become a grammatical means of determination in modern English. When no lexical determiner is used, a noun is obligatorily modified either by a definite article ‘the’, or an indefinite article ‘a/an’, or by a meaningful absence of such, otherwise defined as a “zero article”.
The idea of a “zero article” has been challenged by different scholars on the grounds that only morphemes can be distinguished as “zero marks” in oppositional correlations of words. Still, the following semantic and paradigmatic presentation of the category of article determination makes it possible to distinguish three, rather than just two, “article + noun” forms.
The definite article expresses the identification or individualization of the referent of the noun. The object that the noun denotes is taken as concrete and individual, or definite. The identificational meaning of the definite article can be explicitly demonstrated in a substitution test, when ‘the’ is substituted by the so-called demonstrative lexical determiners, e.g.: the man à this man, the very man (I saw yesterday), etc.
The indefinite article expresses classification, or relative, classifying generalization of the referent, which means that this article refers the object denoted to a certain class. The classifying meaning of the indefinite article can be explicitly demonstrated by substitution with classifying words and phrases, e.g.: a man à some man, a certain man, some kind of a man, etc.
The semantic difference between the identifying definite article and the classifying indefinite article can be demonstrated by a contrast test, e.g.: the man – this very man, not other men (contrasted with other objects of the same class); a man – a certain man, not a woman (contrasted with other classes of objects).
The zero article, or, the meaningful non-use of the article, expresses absolute generalization, abstractionof the referent denoted by the noun. It renders the idea of the highest degree of generalization and abstraction. This meaning can be demonstrated by the insertion test, where the generalizing expressions “in general, in the abstract, in the broadest sense” are inserted into the construction to explicitly show the abstraction, e.g.: Home should be a safe and comfortable place. – Home (in the abstract, in general) should be a safe and comfortable place.
One should bear in mind that with uncountable nouns the absence of the article expresses not only abstract generalization, but also classifying generalization, because the uncountable nouns cannot be used with the indefinite article, which is still semantically connected with its etymological base, the numeral “one”. So, the difference between the classifying absence of the article and the abstract generalized absence of the article with an uncountable noun can be stated only on the basis of either the substitution or the insertion tests offered above. E.g.: Knowledge (in general) is power (absolute generalization). – He demonstrated (some, some kind of) knowledge in the field (relative generalization, classification). The same applies to countable nouns in the plural, because the indefinite article, unlike the definite article, is used only in the singular (due to the same etymological reasons). Cf.: I like flowers (in general) (abstract, absolute generalization). – There are flowers (some, several) on the table (classifying, relative generalization).
Paradigmatically, the category of article determination is formed by two oppositions organized hierarchically: on the upper level, the definite article determination, the strong member of the opposition, is opposed to the indefinite article determination and the meaningful absence of the article, both of which express generalization and jointly make the weak member of the opposition; on the lower level, the indefinite article determination and the meaningful absence of the article with uncountable nouns and nouns in the plural (ø1) expressing relative generalization (classification), which jointly make the strong member of the opposition, are opposed to the zero article determination denoting absolute generalization (abstraction) (ø2) – the weak member of the opposition.
The meaningful absence of the article should be distinguished from contexts in which articles are just omitted – in telegrams, in titles and headlines, in various notices, where their omission helps save space, e.g.: Arrest of Black Lecturer Hightens Distrust; lecturer accuses police of racism. There are no semantic grounds for the absence of the article in fixed expressions, e.g.: to be in debt, at first sight, to lose heart, by chance, cigarette upon cigarette, at night, etc. The use of the definite and indefinite articles can also be fixed in set expressions, e.g.: to be at a loss, on the whole, to take the trouble, out of the question, a great many, in a hurry, etc. Such cases can be treated as lexicalization, cf.: to keep house – âåñòè õîçÿéñòâî, to keep the house – ñèäåòü äîìà.
There are also certain fixed contexts in which the use of articles has no semantic ground; for example, with the names of newspapers the definite article is used, e.g.: the Washington Post, the Sun, while with the names of magazines no article is used, e.g.: Cosmopolitan; likewise, no article is used with the word television, e.g.: We often watch television; but the word radio is usually used with the definite article, e.g.: We often listen to the radio. Most geographic names are used without articles, e.g.: Moscow, Russia, thought some are used with the articles, e.g.: the Hague; the names of mountains are used without articles, e.g.: Mount Everest, while mountain chains are given with the definite articles, e.g.: the Andes, the Rocky Mountains; the same applies to the names of separate islands and of groups of islands, e.g.: Sicily – the Canary Islands; etc. Some of these cases are treated as lexicalized nominations (the Hague), or traditional usage (the Washington Post, but Cosmopolitan), others are described as specific situational rules, codifying the use of articles in concrete situational conditions, mainly in the course of practical grammar with no attempts at semantic explanation.
Still, many of the situational rules are firmly grounded on the semantic difference between the three articles as presented above. For example, the use of the indefinite article with nouns used in the function of a predicative is determined by the classifying character of the predicative itself, e.g.: He is a teacher (belongs to the class of “teachers”); or, the indefinite article is “naturally” used with nouns modified by a descriptive, classifying attribute, while the definite article is used in contexts with limiting (restrictive, particularizing) attributes, which single the referent out, or individualize it, cf.: There is a young man waiting for you; She is a woman of courage. – This is the young man I told you about; She is the nicest person I’ve ever met; This is the right door. Or, the rule that we should use the definite articles with the names of unique objects is obvious, because unique objects are without any doubt definite, e.g.: the sun, the earth (but, note: ø Mars, ø Venus). Obvious semantic reasons determine the use of the indefinite article with the new information in a sentence, the rheme, the communicative center of the utterance, and the definite article with the old, already known facts, the theme of the sentence, e.g.: There was a man on the platform. The man was staring at me.
The article is also defined as a unit whose main function is to actualize the concept of the referent in a particular text; in other words, the article correlates the notion of the referent with actual reality subjectively, as presented by the speaker (writer). Without any article (or any other determiner) at all, the concept remains non-actualized, for example, when we deal with a lexical unit in a dictionary. In general linguistics, articles are usually studied in connection with the semantic category of “definiteness – indefiniteness – generalization”. This approach correlates articles with other semi-notional determiners in the following groups: determiners of definiteness - the, this – that, these – those, my, our, your, etc.; determiners of indefiniteness – a(n), another, any, some, no, an item of, a case of, a piece of, etc.; determiners of generalization – ø, all, per se (as such), in general, etc.
The problem of article determination has given rise to much controversy; there is much dispute about the status of the article itself and the status of its combination with the noun. The question is: is the article an independent word like other determiners, does it form a word-combination with the noun which it determines, or is it a purely grammatical, dependable, morpheme-like auxiliary word used to build an analytical form of the noun? There are pros and cons to sustain each of these two approaches, but it seems more plausible to interpret the article in terms of the general linguistic field approach as a lingual unit of intermediary status between the word and the morpheme, as a special type of grammatical auxiliary, and its combination with the noun as an intermediary phenomenon between the word and the word-combination.