extension of "the"

Alexander Gross language at sprynet.com
Sun Aug 29 20:24:33 UTC 2004

>  Does anyone know of any studies on the extension of the use of "the".
>  In her home town (Stafford VA), a student of mine noted that "the"
>  can be used:

I find it fascinating that anyone would assume that "the" might have a
"normal" use which could then be subject to extension.  And that there would
be any studies which could conceivably place its usage within any sort of
normative range at all or explore the possible range of extensions.

I wonder if this may be just one further offshoot from the illusion shared
by many linguists that the guiding principles of language have been
discovered, described, and even codified. Or in Steven Pinker's words,
linguists have found "the single mental design underlying" all languages and
"we all have the same minds."

Four years ago I issued a challenge not only to all those on the sci.lang
USENET newsgroup concerning this matter, it was in fact a repeat of
the very challenge I had also issued a few years earlier to one of the
foremost founders of AI, a master mathematician and a name so eminent as to
require no further airing here (though the curious may discover it by
running a Deja search on the sci.lang archives).

Neither this expert nor the linguists on sci.lang were able to come up with
a response to this challenge.  I am now readdressing it to my colleagues on
FUNKNET to discover if they will fare any better with it.

The challenge went as follows:


Since you (singular and plural) imagine that it will one day be
possible to construct an "adequate" machine translation system,
here is *your* little assignment.  It's easy, it's all in English.  I
want you to come up with the precise, practical rules by which
we decide to put "the" in front of a noun as opposed to when
we decide to put "a" or "an" in front of a noun as opposed to
when we decide to put absolutely nothing ("zero-grade article")
in front of a noun.   Also: precisely when do we have a choice
between two possible methods?

Further requirement: the rule or rules you come up with have to work
for ALL instances of putting articles in front of nouns.  The rules
should be so fool-proof and logically transparent that we can even
make an expert system paradigm out of them, so that anyone who
needed to know which rule to apply could simply consult the expert
system and find the right answer.  You'll need something like this
for that "adequate" MT system--it will be crucial to spell out these
rules for English, especially since some fairly different ones apply
to almost any foreign language you can name.  And even languages
without articles as such, like Russian and Chinese, have a few
quirks in this regard, to say nothing of the problems of translating
all these languages into and out of English.  Today's most advanced
MT systems get all this wrong as often as right.

But there's another and even better reason for coming up with a
solution. I've tried this task more than once, so it's more than an idle
riddle. I was first asked to come up with a solution by a
Chinese senior revisor & computer linguist friend at the UN translation
department who himself had trouble deciding which article to use.
I was eager to solve it for him, and I was almost certain I could come
up with the solution quite easily.  I was also interested because some
of my students in a translator-training course I was then teaching also
asked me for the same solution.

They really needed the answer, because they continually made
mistakes with articles both in their writing and speech, which
made it sound as though all they could manage was "broken English."
And this is what many people think when foreigners get their articles
wrong, either in speech or in translations.  But these were perfectly
literate & intelligent people--they just couldn't figure out the rules
for English articles.

The point here is not merely to come up with the usual explanation
for this problem (which amounts to little more than saying "when
something is definite, it takes the definite article, when something
is indefinite, it...).  The point IS to come up with a clear set of
rules that can help foreigners to learn English. And beyond that
can incidentally also serve as the basis for an "adequate" MT program.

Perhaps you also will make the mistake of supposing--as I did--that
this is a trivial problem.  Believe me--it isn't.  I had no trouble
coming up with the first two or three rules, but there were still
many inexplicable instances, where I had to say lamely to my
students "Learn the Language."  I ended up weaseling out by telling
both my students and my friend at the UN to read the NY Times &
other sources & try to figure out for themselves why "a" or "the"
or neither one is used. As Martin Kay has pointed out, you can
throw all the computing power in the world at MT and still come
up empty.  At what point does a trivial problem become an
intractable one?


Let me reiterate that while this may look like a simple problem, it isn't.
Using an If, Then, Else logical framework, I tried to build something like
an expert system that could represent its terms but couldn't truly get
beyond the first few rules. The permissible range for using our articles
varies not merely between British and American English but within our own US
variety according to differences of region, class, education, national
origin, and age.  It may even vary between members of the same family and
over time within the usage of a single individual.

And we're talking just about English here--imagine the complexities that
arise when other languages are brought in.  And since this is true for such
an extremely small subset of structural linguistic problems in a single
language, how much more true must it be for the august, all-embracing,
universalist theory advanced by MIT linguists?  To say nothing of all its
cognitive this and that spinoffs? A French friend tells me the manual for
French-English conversion of articles looks like a small law book, which
even then is sure to have exceptions and omissions. If after decades of
detailed rule-seeking and measurements and busy work on the "syntactic
structures" of minute language byways our current school of linguists can't
solve this problem, then what can they solve?

very best to all!


----- Original Message -----
From: "clements" <clements at indiana.edu>
To: <funknet at mailman.rice.edu>
Cc: <rronques at indiana.edu>
Sent: Friday, August 27, 2004 11:47 AM
Subject: [FUNKNET] extension of "the"

> Dear Funknetters,
> Does anyone know of any studies on the extension of the use of "the". In
> her home town (Stafford VA), a student of mine noted that "the" can be
> used:
> --With most acronyms
> I have the AOL.
> She has the SARS.
> --With generics
> I like the coffee/the candy. (to refer to all coffee or candy)
> --With many proper place names.  These tend to be specific references,
> especially the store names.  If my friend told me she was going to "the
> Pier 1," I would understand that she meant the Pier 1 in Central Park.
> We are going to the Nashville.
> I'm in the Target.
> He bought it at the Pier 1.
> I have heard it reported with abstract nouns, as in
> I have the diabetes
> and a colleague of mine in Fort Wayne IN reported hearing it from his
> students.
> Any leads would be most welcome.  If there's interest, I'll write up a
> summary.
> Clancy Clements

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