Article (grammar)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

An article (abbreviated Template:Sc) is a word that combines with a noun to indicate the type of reference being made by the noun. Articles specify the grammatical definiteness of the noun, in some languages extending to volume or numerical scope. The articles in the English language are the and a/an. 'An' and 'a' are modern forms of the Old English 'an', which in Anglian dialects was the number 'one' (compare 'on', in Saxon dialects) and survived into Modern Scots as the number 'ane'. Both 'on' (respelled 'one' by the Normans) and 'an' survived into Modern English, with 'one' used as the number and 'an' ('a', before nouns that begin with a consonant sound) as an indefinite article.

The word some is thus used as a functional plural of a/an. "An apple" never means more than one apple. "Give me some apples" indicates more than one is desired but without specifying a quantity. This finds comparison in Spanish, where the indefinite article is completely indistinguishable from the single number, except that 'uno/una' ("one") has a plural form ('unos/unas'): Dame una manzana" ("Give me an apple") > "Dame unas manzanas" ("Give me some apples").

Among the classical parts of speech, articles are considered a special category of adjectives. Some modern linguists prefer to classify them within a separate part of speech, determiners.

In languages that employ articles, every common noun, with some exceptions, is expressed with a certain definiteness (e.g., definite or indefinite), just as many languages express every noun with a certain grammatical number (e.g., singular or plural). Every noun must be accompanied by the article, if any, corresponding to its definiteness, and the lack of an article (considered a zero article) itself specifies a certain definiteness. This is in contrast to other adjectives and determiners, which are typically optional. This obligatory nature of articles makes them among the most common words in many languages—in English, for example, the most frequent word is the.

Contents

Types

Articles are usually characterized as either definite or indefinite. A few languages with well-developed systems of articles may distinguish additional subtypes.

Within each type, languages may have various forms of each article, according to grammatical attributes such as gender, number, or case, or according to adjacent sounds.

Definite article

A definite article indicates that its noun is a particular one (or ones) identifiable to the listener. It may be the same thing that the speaker has already mentioned, or it may be something uniquely specified. The definite article in English is the.

The children know the fastest way home.

The sentence above contrasts with the much more general observation that:

Children know the fastest way home.

Likewise,

Give me the book

has a markedly different meaning in most English contexts from

Give me a book.

It can also be used to indicate a specific class among other classes:

The cabbage white butterfly lays its eggs on members of the Brassica genus.

But it should not be used to refer to a specimen:

*The writing is the human invention.

Indefinite article

An indefinite article indicates that its noun is not a particular one (or ones) identifiable to the listener. It may be something that the speaker is mentioning for the first time, or its precise identity may be irrelevant or hypothetical, or the speaker may be making a general statement about any such thing. English uses a/an, from the Old English forms of the number 'one', as its indefinite article. The form an is used before words that begin with a vowel sound (even if spelled with an initial consonant, as in an hour), and a before words that begin with a consonant sound (even if spelled with a vowel, as in a European).

She had a house so large that an elephant would get lost without a map.

Before some words beginning with a pronounced (not silent) h in an unstressed first syllable, such as hallucination, hilarious, historic(al), horrendous, and horrific, some (especially older) British writers prefer to use an over a (an historical event, etc.). An is also preferred before hotel by some writers of BrE (probably reflecting the relatively recent adoption of the word from French, where the h is not pronounced). The use of "an" before words beginning with an unstressed "h" is more common generally in BrE than American. American writers normally use a in all these cases, although there are occasional uses of an historic(al) in AmE. According to the New Oxford Dictionary of English, such use is increasingly rare in BrE too. Unlike BrE, AmE typically uses an before herb, since the h in this word is silent for most Americans.

Partitive article

A partitive article is a type of indefinite article used with a mass noun such as water, to indicate a non-specific quantity of it. Partitive articles are used in French and Italian in addition to definite and indefinite articles. The nearest equivalent in English is some, although this is considered a determiner and not an article.

French: Voulez-vous du café ?
Do you want (some) coffee? (or, dialectally but more accurately, Do you want some of this coffee?)
See also more information about the French partitive article.

Negative article

A negative article specifies none of its noun, and can thus be regarded as neither definite nor indefinite. On the other hand, some consider such a word to be a simple determiner rather than an article. In English, this function is fulfilled by no.

No man is an island.

Zero article

The zero article is the absence of an article. In languages having a definite article, the lack of an article specifically indicates that the noun is indefinite. Linguists interested in X-bar theory causally link zero articles to nouns lacking a determiner. In English, the zero article rather than the indefinite is used with plurals and mass nouns, although the word "some" can be used as an indefinite plural article.

Visitors walked in mud.

Variation among languages

Among the world's most widely spoken languages, articles are found almost exclusively in Indo-European and Semitic languagesTemplate:Cn. Strictly speaking, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Malay, and Russian have no articles, but certain words can be used like articles, when needed.

Linguists believe the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, Proto Indo-European, did not have articles. Most of the languages in this family do not have definite or indefinite articles; there is no article in Latin, Sanskrit, Persian, nor in some modern Indo-European languages, such as the Baltic languages and most Slavic languages. Although Classical Greek has a definite article (which has survived into Modern Greek and which bears strong resemblance to the German definite article), the earlier Homeric Greek did not. Articles developed independently in several language families.

Not all languages have both definite and indefinite articles, and some languages have different types of definite and indefinite articles to distinguish finer shades of meaning; for example, French and Italian have a partitive article used for indefinite mass nouns, while Colognian has two distinct sets of definite articles indicating focus and uniqueness, and Macedonian uses definite articles in a demonstrative sense, distinguishing this from that (with an intermediate degree). The words this and that (and their plurals, these and those) can be understood in English as, ultimately, forms of the definite article the (whose declension in Old English included thaes, an ancestral form of this/that and these/those).

In many languages, the form of the article may vary according to the gender, number, or case of its noun. In some languages the article may be the only indication of the case, e.g., German Der Hut des Napoleon, "Napoleon's hat". Many languages do not use articles at all, and may use other ways of indicating old versus new information, such as topic-comment constructions.

Articles used in the world's most widely spoken languages
Language definite article indefinite article partitive article
Arabic al- None
English the a, an
German der, die, das
des, dem, den
ein, eine, einer
einem, einen
Dutch de, het
de
een
Tamazight __ yan, yat
ittsn,ittsnt
Spanish el, la
los, las
un, una
unos, unas
Portuguese o, a
os, as
um, uma
uns, umas
French le, la, l'
les
un, une
des
du, de la
de l', des
Italian il, lo, la, l'
i, gli, le
un, uno, una, un' del, dello, della, dell'
dei, degli, degl' , delle
Language definite article indefinite article
Hungarian a, az egy


In the above examples, the article always precedes its noun (with the exception of the Arabic tanween). In some languages, however, the definite article is not always a separate word, but may be postfixed, attached to the end of its noun as a suffix. For example,

  • Albanian: plis, a white fez, plisi the white fez
  • Romanian: drum, road; drumul, the road
  • Icelandic: hestur, horse; hesturinn, the horse
  • Norwegian: stol, chair; stolen, the chair
  • Swedish: hus house; huset the house
  • Bulgarian: стол stol, chair; столът stolǎt, the chair (subject); стола stola, the chair (object)
  • Macedonian: стол stol, chair; столот stolot, the chair; столов stolov, this chair; столон stolon, that chair

Evolution

Articles have developed independently in many different language families across the globe. Generally, articles develop over time usually by specialization of certain adjectives.

Joseph Greenberg describes "the cycle of the definite article": Definite articles (Stage I) evolve from demonstratives, and in turn can become generic articles (Stage II) that may be used in both definite and indefinite contexts, and later merely noun markers (Stage III) that are part of nouns other than proper names and more recent borrowings. Eventually articles may evolve anew from demonstratives.

Definite articles

Definite articles typically arise from demonstratives meaning that. For example, the definite articles in the Romance languages—e.g., el, il, le, la—derive from the Latin demonstratives ille (masculine) and illa (feminine).

The English definite article the, written þe in Middle English, derives from an Old English demonstrative, which, according to gender, was written se (masculine), seo (feminine), or þæt (neuter). The neuter form þæt also gave rise to the modern demonstrative that. The ye occasionally seen in pseudo-archaic usage such as "Ye Olde Englishe Tea Shoppe" is actually a form of þe, where the letter thorn (þ) came to be written as a y.

Multiple demonstratives can give rise to multiple definite articles. Macedonian, for example, in which the articles are suffixed, has столот (stolot), the chair; столов (stolov), this chair; and столон (stolon), that chair. Colognian prepositions articles such as in dat Auto, or et Auto, the car; the first being specifically selected, focussed, newly introduced, while the latter ist not selected, unfocussed, already known, general, or generic.

Indefinite articles

Indefinite articles typically arise from adjectives meaning one. For example, the indefinite articles in the Romance languages—e.g., un, una, une—derive from the Latin adjective unus. Partitive articles, however, derive from Vulgar Latin de illo, meaning (some) of the.

The English indefinite article an is derived from the same root as one. The -n came to be dropped before consonants, giving rise to the shortened form a. The existence of both forms has led to many cases of juncture loss, e.g. transforming the original a napron into the modern an apron.

See also





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