May 22nd, 2010, 03:06 am
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Join Date: Oct 8th, 2006
| | Re: Article problems
Again, you're mixing a lot of different questions here, so I'll answer them one at a time. First :
Which one is correct?
(For the first time when we talk about uncountable nouns)
The use of the article is complex, because as always, grammar reflects meaning and what meaning I want to express is my choice. So you're asking the wrong question. It's not a matter of Is it X or Y? but of What does X mean? What does Y mean and which of the two meanings do I want to express.
the is the definite article. It's used with any type of noun (countable/incountable, singular plural) which refers to a definite (or specific) thing, and when the information about that thing is shared by the speaker and hearer or reader and writer. Whether it's the first mention or not makes no difference.
For example :
Look at the man who's sitting next to John!
Can you see the men in this picture?
Can you pass me the water please.
In this case, we're referring to a specific man and specific water which both speaker and hearer can see - therefore the information is shared. So the article is used. The fact that it's the first time it has been mentioned is irrelevant.
The same thing happens when we say something like :
The moon is bright tonight!
The oil is going to be really good this year.
The government is raising taxes again!
The speaker assumes that the knowledge of which moon/government he's talking about is shared with the reader. There are lots of moons in the universe, lots of people with olive groves in the world and lots of governments too, but the speaker assumes the hearer understands he's talking about "our" moon, "our" oil and "our" government.
In connected text, very often the first time something is mentioned it's new information - ie not shared with the hearer/reader. The second time it occurs however, it is shared and so the definite article is used.
A man walked into the room. ........ David looked at the man and said ...
But the reason is still the new/shared explanation.
Now consider these situations :
There's a man waiting to see you in reception.
There are some men waiting to see you in reception.
There's some water in the fridge. Can you get it please?
Notice that here the man/men/water referred to are equally specific and defined as in Look at the man sitting next to John , and the other examples in the same group, but the speaker chooses to present them as new, unshared information :
There's a man waiting to see you in reception = I don't know who he is, and you didn't know about him either.
Coming in over the top of this though is when the reference is general, in which case we would expect no article with uncountable nouns, and no article + plural or (more rarely) a + singular with countable nouns.
Tigers eat meat.
Compare that with a zookeeper pointing to a pile of meat and saying to his assistant :
Give the meat to the tigers. = Give the meat which we can both see in front of us to our tigers. So the information is both specific and shared.
Then, with uncountable nouns and plural countables there's a third meaning : all (ie a definite quantity, expressed by the)versus a part (ie an indefinite quantity, expressed by some). Compare :
Can you pass me the water? (= all of it, the whole bottle)
Can you pour me some water? (not all of it, only a part)
But these multiple uses - general or specific, shared or unknown, all or part - sometimes create such a tension between the different possibilities that you can choose to present the information in a variety of ways. And that's what makes it so complex. Compare for example :
1. There's some water in the fridge if you're thirsty.
2. There's water in the fridge if you're thirsty.
3. Go and get the water from the fridge if you're thirsty.
4. Go and get some water from the fridge if you're thirsty
I could say any of these in exactly the same circumstances - what changes is my assumptions - for example, in (3) I'm probably assuming that the hearer knows the water is there (shared information) whereas in (1) and (4) I'm not. There's also the suggestion that in (3) the hearer should get all the water (perhaps there's only one bottle in there) whereas in the other three sentences I'm not. (2) presents it as more "general" than the others and would probably be less likely in this context (where the speaker knows there's a specific bottle or jug in there). But consider the example from above :
She walks three miles twice a day to get water from the well.