The Chinese Diplomat's "the"

Salinas17 at Salinas17 at
Mon Aug 30 14:34:05 UTC 2004

In a message dated 8/29/04 4:25:21 PM, language at writes:
<< 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. >>

In a message dated 8/29/04 7:14:03 PM, rmalouf at writes:
<< At any rate, the performance of the best models is getting close to that
of humans at guessing which article will be used in a given context. >>

There's an irony to why one sees such adherence to structuralist criteria on
the "functional" linguistics list.  In most situations, of course, a computer
model cannot possibly predict the use of "the" versus "a" unless it also reads

If Alex's Chinese diplomats are merely trying to avoid "Broken English", then
should we assume that their English otherwise is 100% comprehensible?  In
other words, is it that they are never misunderstood, but are merely using an
inappropriate "ungrammatical" English?  And why would that trouble them?  What is
the consequence of a foreign diplomat speaking understandable but
stylistically non-conforming English?

Microsoft Word does a pretty good job of correcting inappropriate omission of
an article before a singular noun.  When I type in, "Will you please get
car?", it tells me an article is missing and prompts me to choose between "a car"
and "the car".  It even tells me that one is definite and one is indefinite.
No big deal.

If a Chinese diplomat should say to his parking valet, "please get car", I
don't imagine that the valet would interpret that as "any car" or "a car of your
choosing".  But if he showed up a few moments later with someone else's car,
then we observers might definitely conclude there was "a failure to
communicate," as the Boss says in Cool Hand Luke.

If this misunderstanding were to persist, there might be a good practical
reason for our diplomat to start using, "please get THE car" so that the valet
knows which car is being referred to.

But I imagine a diplomat would also think his function as a diplomat would be
best served if he were well-versed in English and did not omit an article
where English speakers would use one.  It would enhance his job security.

But even in that case, the controlling variable is probably not what our
diplomat thinks about his English or his use of an article in a sentence.  The
controlling variable is how listeners respond to his English.

A computer model that merely mimics human speech structure is rigged.  How is
it suppose to know whether I am referring to "a car" or "the car"?   How is
it to know my intention?

The BIG trick we haven't reproduced is the one the UN parking valet performs.

He knows that "please get car" refers to a specific car.  And he only knows
that because he can rule out the possibility that our diplomat means just any
car.  And the reason he knows that has more to do with the rules of car
ownership and parking garages than it has to do with the rules of language.

The real function of language is nearly always extra-linguistic.  The
difference between "the" and "a" is most often determined out there in the real
world, not in the closed loop of structural linguistics.  The consequence of
omitting an article in English or misusing one has more to do with what will happen
the next time than the rules of grammar.

If "please get car" impresses on the valet that we are important foreign
diplomats and yields quicker service, we may just keep using it -- even if we are
not Chinese diplomats.

We shouldn't be fooled into thinking that, because we expect people to speak
grammatically and they respond, that arbitrary grammar rules are somehow built
into us.  On the other hand, where grammar rules have clear communication
advantages, that should be enough to explain them.

Steve Long

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