This is topic 19 Etudes On Determiners in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by EmmaSohan (Member # 10917) on :
If you have not, seeFarewell

I have been working on determiners. The practical value seems low and I don't know how anyone could discuss these, so I have not been posting. I don't know how far I will get.
Posted by EmmaSohan (Member # 10917) on :
What does the word a mean? It is natural to contrast it to the, in which case it means not-the. But a better comparison might be this:

Bring me pencils
Bring me a pencil
Bring me water

When no other determiner is being used, a shows that the following noun is a singular count noun.

That might seem trivial. I once thought it was. But it's not.

I went to jail
I went to a jail.

Jail, as a singular count noun, is a building (or place). As a mass noun it is an experience.

I was shocked at how many words can be either. You probably would not believe that a quarter of the simple words in English could be used that way. I would be surprised if it was only a quarter.

To me, this is a remarkably trivial role for a, and kind of removes any rational for having articles. But it also seems to be the most elegant way of viewing a.
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Interesting insights, Emma.

It may seem trivial, but whether you use a or not can change meaning, and that's not trivial. The difference may be subtle at times, maybe even more subtle than we might like, but if meaning is important and correct and accurate communication is important, then it isn't trivial.
Posted by InarticulateBabbler (Member # 4849) on :
Unlike definite article "the," the indefinite articles "a" or "an" denote singular or unspecific nouns.

"I went to a jail," indicates you're not sure or don't know which jail you went to. "I went to jail," may not be specific, but it implies you know which jail you went to. Unless otherwise specified, the hearer/reader would assume it was the county in which the story is being told.

"Bring me a pencil," indicates you want a singular, unspecified pencil. As opposed to: "Bring me my pencil," or "Bring me the pencil." There is an implication of specificity with the latter two. "Bring me pencils," is just awkward all the way around, in my opinion.

"Bring me a water," feels like it's got a silent "bottle of" to it. "Bring me water," despite sounding awkward, implies you don't care about the source, amount, or vessel.

So, I agree with Kathleen that indefinite articles can definitely change the implied meaning, as can the lack thereof.
Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
Occurs to me that because of how articles can change or imply meaning, the spot they occupy (or are absent from as the case may be) functions as a special class of preposition, rather than merely as a modifier.
Posted by EmmaSohan (Member # 10917) on :
Thanks! This was a pleasant surprise.

The has two uses. First, it's mandatory when the noun phrase is obviously unique. "the largest mountain in Utah." Note that I have no idea what mountain that is.

Second, the is used by the speaker to show that the listener can figure out what is being talked about.

"I visited a jail."

Could be any jail.

"I visited the jail."

I expect the listener to know which jail I am talking about. Or else I could not use it.

"Jon was being held in Santa Clara. I visited the jail."

So, it's not quite specificity, though it's that, it's also a "promise" that the listener can figure it out. And that promise often helps the reader figure it out.

Let's see, one more example. The family has five children,

Ella was a middle child
Ella was the middle child.

[ June 04, 2020, 08:38 AM: Message edited by: EmmaSohan ]
Posted by EmmaSohan (Member # 10917) on :
They each earned a dollar.
Our unstated assumption seems to be that a sentence can be diagrammed, and at the end of that analysis, each word will be identified as a part of speech.

I started having problems with that, like for the words that and ever, which I ignored, but there seems to be no good part of speech for each in that sentence.

So I stepped back. I imagined no grammar, just unordered words in a pile, contributing meaning. It turns out the grammar rules create classes. So to say that an adjective goes before a noun creates the class of adjective and noun.

And I imagine so many rules that almost all the words in a sentence were identified. But I imagined some of them were not.

And there are words like not, ever, however, and only which can be put in different places in a sentence. If not is used in front of a noun, does that make it an adjective? It doesn't really change the meaning or analysis. Or take "will not go". Does not modify go? Or will? Or both? Isn't not go an oxymoron?

I'm not sure how this eventually plays out. But I'm pretty sure there is something wrong with the assumption that all words have parts of speech.
Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
They each had a dollar.
(Every person had one dollar.)

In this sentence, each modifies They, so it's functioning as an adjective. (There's probably a special name for this particular case, but I've not bothered to learn the hundreds of such terms.)

The sentence is functional, but inaccurate, without it:

They had a dollar.
(Apparently just one dollar between all of them.)
So the modification is important.

Or as
Each had a dollar.
Here there's an understood subject, but the meaning is the same as the original (every person had a dollar).

With Latin, you CAN have unordered words in a pile, and can still extract meaning because the form of each word (suffix, altered final vowel, etc) tells you its function. "Scrambled sentences" was a daily exercise in my high school Latin text.
Posted by EmmaSohan (Member # 10917) on :
Thanks. You can do that. I think wiki called "they" the adjective, that's another choice.

One of the rules I discovered for pronouns is that they can't be modified. It seems like there must be exceptions, but I can't think of any. So you are breaking that rule.

As an ordinary adjective, it should be able to go first? But it can't. "Each they" doesn't make sense, I think because each doesn't make sense (or modify plurals).

I didn't know that about Latin.
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Latin grammar is the source for many of the rules applied to English grammar that make English speaking students in grammar classes crazy.

My favorite example is the rule against splitting infinitives ("to" verb words). In Latin, you can't split infinitives because they are one word (as they are in German, for that matter). But English infinitives are two words (at least), and very splittable (is that a word?).

We really need extrinsic for this kind of question.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Just to throw a catfish among the pigeons consider this: They is a collective noun while each is a singular noun.

Perhaps the best way to phrase this is to say, "Each one of them had a dollar."

Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :

Phil, in your example, doesn't "each" modify "one" (making it an adjective)?

We really need extrinsic here, I think.

Posted by EmmaSohan (Member # 10917) on :

We really need extrinsic here, I think.

Yes extrinsic would have had some explanation. He has now been gone for 1 year and 28 days.

There are theories where every word has to have a part of speech. If that was true, and important to communication, I would have to consciously or unconsciously know which part of speech "each" was. But I don't. So if we decided on a part of speech, wouldn't that decision be irrelevant to understanding that sentence?
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Learning grammar is important because grammar is one of the tools writers use. But I agree that if you know how to use words, it isn't necessary to get stressed about what part of speech a word belongs to.
Posted by EmmaSohan (Member # 10917) on :
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
Learning grammar is important because grammar is one of the tools writers use. But I agree that if you know how to use words, it isn't necessary to get stressed about what part of speech a word belongs to.

If we used grammar in writing, this discussion would be a lot more important for writing than it is. AFAIK, I am questioning a basic assumption of grammar -- that every word in a sentence is a part of speech. No one responded, "Why in the world would you expect every word in a sentence of have a part of speech?"
They were each taking a step back into the ferns.
To try to end with something relevant to writing:

There is a standard order for phrase, roughly subject/verb/object. If you break that rule, your sentence will be more difficult to understand. But poets do, and it has an odd place in narration where it's perfect:
"Oh, what shall I do? I'm going to burst into tears!"
Burst into tears she did.
(Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables)

And one of my favorite lines, probably un-needed. She is doing something sexual with a guy, her boss and a client walk in, and he tries to explain it as her just having gotten some really awful news about her mother dying. And she narrates:
Grief did not a bra on the coffee table explain.
(The Opposite of Everyone, Jackson, page 63)

For this discussion, the point is that grammar tries to divide things into right and wrong and does not try to explain "odd".

For writing, I would guess that most writers do not have this tool. As it comes up rarely, that's not quite a problem, except in that rare case where it is not need.
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Thanks for all your explorations of grammar and word usage here, Emma.

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