Monday, March 12, 2007

The Meaning of "The". Timothy Pritchard

What ‘the’ really means

1. What ‘the’ does NOT mean.
‘The’ is not a quantifier of any sort whatsoever. Consider the sentence:

The sheep bleated merrily amongst the buttercups.

How many sheep are bleating merrily amongst the buttercups? Is it one, or two, or three; is it a few, many, loads and loads? If I had written ‘One sheep bleated’ or ‘two sheep’ or ‘a few sheep’ or ‘many sheep’ you could tell me how many sheep were doing the bleating (even if in only relatively vague terms like ‘a few’). That is because these qualifiers are quantifiers. ‘The’ is not a quantifier – it tells us nothing about quantity.

2. What ‘the’ DOES mean.
To find out what ‘the’ means the best place to look is in the writings of the professional scholars who have committed themselves to describing the English language. I use a summary given in the OED, and it is the only account you will find in a comprehensive grammar of English:

‘the’ marks an object as ‘before mentioned or already known or contextually particularized’.

Suppose I write a children’s book and start with ‘A bear walked down the street’. If I speak about that bear again in the second sentence I will use the definite form: ‘The bear was going home.’ The bear is before mentioned.

Suppose a friend comes to me and says ‘I have finished writing the book’. If I did not know that my friend was writing a book I will be irritated – the use of ‘the’ suggests that the book is already known. If I point out to my friend that I didn’t know of any book, the friend will respond ‘Oh, I thought you knew about the book’ – note how it is OK now to use ‘the’ because the (sic) book has been introduced into the discourse.

Suppose I say: ‘We walked past a farm and the farmer greeted us’. The use of ‘the’ before ‘farmer’ is OK here because it is common knowledge that farms have farmers – the farmer is contextually particularised.

3. The sign of a good theory is that it fits and explains the data. The account which treats ‘the’ as a quantifier neither arises from the data nor explains anything. Notice how the whole emphasis in the debate on ‘definite descriptions’ is on solving problems that arise from the theory itself. The problems arise because the theory is false, and the resulting debate is all about defending the theory rather than on saying anything illuminating about language. The correct theory, given by descriptive linguists for at least 70 years, arises from the data and explains the data (or at least a lot of it). It also gives us an insight into language.

14 Comments:

Anonymous Mike Campbell said...

In the talk Tim used the example
"it is not an appropriate answer to the question 'how far did you run?' to say 'I ran the mile'". But I think I can imagine some Cornish farmer using 'the' in just this way, i.e. quantitively. Even if this is right it's not a huge problem for Tim, it's just he might want to say 'in standard usage 'the' is not used quantitively', rather than saying ''the' is never used quantitively'. But I think that would fit with the pragmatic aims of his analysis.

11:29 AM  
Blogger bloggin the Question said...

Seems agreeable. I wonder if the two views are not compatible. "The sheep" could be an existential quantifier over a unique set of sheep.
Another question I have is where the term hasn't been previously introduced. "The square on the hypotenuse is equal to the square on the other two sides." "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." "The best man should organise a stag party." Doesn't the quantifier theory have some descriptive appeal in these cases?

11:32 AM  
Anonymous Tim said...

the square on the hypoteneuse,the centre of the universe, the best man etc: in each case there is only one referent and it is this which licenses the use of 'the' - the use of 'the' is a reflex of the fact that what the noun phrases describe can refer to only one thing. This means that the referent is already 'contextually particularized' and we do not still want to ask 'which one are you talking about'. Notice that a 'uniqueness' semantics for the 'the' in such cases is redundant - uniqueness comes from the words that follow.

I think the initial question should not be whether the two views are compatible but whether the quantifier view has any motivation for it at all - does it? We need some examples ... the alternative view is massively motivated.

2:34 PM  
Blogger bloggin the Question said...

@the motivation is that if one of several possible items have been introduced or are particularized by the context, then "the" is not appropriate; eg. In the mental hospital there were four kings of France, and the king of France was in the kitchen.
Once upon a time there were three goats, and the goat was called Billy.
The area of a right angled triangle is half the square of the length of the side.
Introduced or contextually particularised means to be a constituent of something that is presupposed. For "the" to work, it has also to be unique, although this does not mean singular, as you point out. "The kings of france were in the kitchen" would be okay, but if two plural groups were introduced you'd get the same problem. "there were two opposing teams of journalists playing tug of war, after a long battle the journalists won"
Am I missing the point?

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

It seems we are using the terms 'introduction' and 'contextually particularized' in different ways. On the usage I presuppose (which is appropriate for explaining this phenomenon), if ONE of several possible items has been introduced, 'the' is appropriate - in your examples we only have several items introduced, not one of them. Given that you have introduced several, 'the' is OK to refer to the group you have introduced, as you point out: Once upon a time there were three goats. The goats were called Billy, Jilly, and Milly. So, by 'introduction' and 'contextually particularized' I mean introduced into the context in such a way that the question 'which one are you talking about' need not be asked. This is an important notion of 'introduction' given that it corresponds to the 'definiteness' feature of many language terms; the 'definite' forms (e.g. the/this/that so-and-so, P.Names, pronouns) - all require appropriate 'introductions' where the hearer is not left asking 'which one does that refer to') (And historically 'the' derives from the Old English demonstrative, indicating its basic semantic heritage as to do with definiteness, not with quantity).

I cannot agree that for 'the' to work it also has to be unique. If I read a book and the opening sentence reads, 'The non-Fregean view of langauge is wrong', there is indeed an implication of uniqueness - not because 'the' encodes uniqueness but because a definite description is being used in an introductory role. The author is, as it were, telling us that we should have no difficulty in identifying which non-Fregean view is in mind because there is only one of them. Definite descriptions in introductory roles are OK where there is no further question 'which one' - as in 'The centre of the universe', 'The death of Caesar'. But suppose that the author of this book on Frege had previously introduced the particular (sic) non-Fregean view of language which he wanted to speak about. This licenses later reference to 'the' non-Fregean view - viz. 'the one I have outlined earlier'. All the semantic effects are being done by the basic notion of identification. The apparent 'uniqueness' force of an introductory 'The non-fregean view ...' is a derivative result.

Are these suggestions convincing? Perhaps a thought experiment helps: stipulate that in English we will have the words the1 (behaves as the quantifier view suggests) and the2 (behaves as the alternative view suggests). I suggest that the1 would never get used, and that the2 would appear more or less where 'the' in English appears.

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Jonny said...

I accept your thought experiment, and am excited by it being of a scientific bent. The problem is (and this is probably because I can't quite understand the issues) what kind of test would indicate whether the1 or the2 was being used? What I'm finding difficult is that both seem to indicate uniqueness within the contextual domain of discourse. So it will be hard to find instances that tell them apart.
Here is a potential case. Alf asks "What is the exact distance from London to Bristol"
Beth replies "Well the exact distance depends on which way you go."
I think here Beth's use of "the" cannot be the1 since she is deliberately informing Alf that there is more than one exact distance. So it must be the2. On the other hand though, a fan of the1 might say she is still implying that there is only one exact distance per route.
Just to try the other way
"The five parsons on the green are drinking tea."
I'm a bit muddled about the issue, but wouldn't a the2 theorist interpret this as being consistent with "There are five parson's on the green who are drinking tea, and there may be other parsons not drinking tea" whereas a the1 theorist would insist that it would be false unless there were only five parsons on the green, and they were all drinking tea. The tea drinking means the hearer can identify which parsons are being talked about, so they are contextually particularised enough for the the2 theorist. In this case doesn't the1 win because the utterance would be false, or unintelligible if there were more than five parsons?

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Tim said...

The two examples Jonny gives can be easily dealt with by the alternative account of 'the'.

We say 'the' exact distance because there is only one exact distance between two points. Even if we do not know which two points we are talking about we will speak of 'the' exact distance between those points (whatever they are) because there is no further question 'which exact distance which holds between those two points are we talking about'. In my terminology, the distance is contexually particularized.

With the five parson example there is not necessarily any implication that they are the only five parsons on the green. Rather they only need be the particular group of five parsons which we have been talking about - perhaps contrasting with the three parsons in the pub (viz that group of three parsons which we have been talking about, irrespective of any other parsons in the pub). But once again, if 'the five parsons on the green' was used as an 'introduction', there would be a derivative implication of uniqueness - because this would be the condition which prevents any further question 'which group are you talking about'.

9:22 AM  
Anonymous jonny said...

The exact distance example was supposed to be supportive of the alternative view. Here's my problem.
the1 theory: "the x" entails that there is only one x in the contextually specified domain. (Bear in mind that x can designate a quantity of things, eg the five parsons, the sheep, the twenty tons of sand.)
the2 theory: "the x" does not entail that there is only one x in the contextually specified domain, but because of pragmatic conventions of speech, as a matter of contingent fact, there will only ever be one x in the specified domain.
If this is right, then both theories will have the same empirical content. What I was trying to do with the "exact distance" example is to show an example where the pragmatic conventions of speech do not require uniqueness since the respondant is not presupposing something presupposed by the speaker. (that there is only one exact distance from London to Bristol) In this case the the2 theory looks like it wins out, which should be what you are looking for.

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Tim said...

I've been trying though to say that it is NOT the case that there will only ever be 'one' x. To use 'the' we need to be able to answer the question 'which one', in exactly the same way as happens when we say 'this x' or 'that x'. Hence I can talk about 'the non-Fregean view' as long as you, the reader, are not left wondering 'which one is he speaking about'. I could be speaking about the (sic) non-Fregean view which I happen to have introduced earlier, whilst fully accepting that there are lots of other non-Fregean views.

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Jonny said...

Sorry to be a pain. It's just that I'm trying to fit this into my epistemic frame view. Surely no one thinks that "the bed is made" is true iff there exist one and only one bed *in the entire universe* and it is made. There has to be some restrictions, even on the quantifier view. What am I'm having difficulty in seeing is why the quantifier theorist can't just simply respond to your objections by saying the restricted domain over which the quantifier operates just is those things that have been introduced. So "the bed is made" is true if and only iff, among the things that have been introduced into the current discourse, there is one and only one bed and is it made
In order to understand your view, I'm trying to come with examples which support your view even against this kind of move.
Here's another attempt.
"Tim Pritchard is interested in the meaning of "the". *The* philosophy research graduate at Kings gave a talk on *the* topic at the recent graduate conference to a group of other graduates from *the* department and other London university philosophy departments."

Here there is no implication that there is only one research student at kings, or that there was only one topic discussed at the conference, or that there is only one philosophy department in London. This is so even if you restrict the domain to things that have been introduced into the discourse.
Have I got it yet?

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Tim said...

I think you might have got it - it's just that you seem at times to fade in and out of focus!

And you might have described what the quantifier theorist would indeed say - I'm guessing here - the domain gets restricted to some identified individual/group, hence our 'uniqueness' semantics for 'the' is applicable. But we can run the same argument for 'this x' or 'that x': we are talking uniquely about this x that we have restricted the discussion to. But noone treats this/that as quantifiers. I feel as though I am still waiting for data which shows that the quantifier theory is not redundant.

2:48 PM  
Blogger Richard Phillips said...

It's interesting that the owner of the blog asks for philosophical pieces that meet a ‘reasonable standard’. Having read this and many (though not all) of the following comments, I have a few comments for the writer. I should add that my former employment was as a copy editor, and that I come from an IR-type background.

Learn how to use articles. Tell us what the problem is, not what problem is.

On “sentences of fictional discourse” - these are surely discourses within fiction, such as when Harry Potter tells his adoptive mother what he had for breakfast. Could the fictional names here be Harry and adoptive mother (or whatever name was given to her)? Or did you have something else in mind when you wrote of discourse and names? I hope so, because otherwise you’re off to an awful start. Try to say what you want to say.

Learn how to use commas. The first sentence should have one in the middle, before ‘yet’. So should the second.

‘Those who wish to avoid ontological commitment to fictional characters.’ Please explain how commitment to a character (fictional or not) can be ontological, or, at the very least, explain quite what kind of commitment you mean.

Since when was postulate a verb? Since never. You make a postulate, or you might, perhaps, posit. You use the latter verb correctly later, why make a mess of things here?

“Fictional characters are created by an author(s).” This sentence wouldn’t be quite so cocked-up if it simply read ‘Fictional characters are created by authors.’

“Provided there is no pre-existent character or real person to whom the author is referring (importing fictional character vs. importing real people into fiction).” This doesn’t stand as a sentence on its own. In fact, it should be a tag on the end of the preceding one. And what were you thinking when you wrote “pre-existent”? Perhaps the grammatically-correct ‘pre-existing’ sounded too mundane?

“Rigid= The character is dependent on a particular author (thus the author and social and historical circumstances need to exists in all pws in which the character exists).” What’s a pw? Explain! And in future, avoid jargon.

“Generic= the character exists provided there exists any copy of the work/memory/reader exist.” Delete the words “there exists” and you have a grammatically-correct sentence. Leave them in, and you don’t.

“Have to give up traditional definition of ‘abstract’ that of being ideal, eternal and non-spatial.” Terribly written. How the hell did you get into a PhD program at an English university with such poor Engrish? Try ‘We must give up the traditional definition of ‘abstract’ as ideal, eternal and non-spatial.”

“Why should we postulate fictional characters?” You shouldn’t. Posit them if you feel the urge.

“Thomasson = all intentional acts have an object (not to be confused with ‘object of thought’) – intersubjective identification succeeds.” What are you doing with those equals marks? Replace with the words ‘argues that’ and you might start to make sense, though you’re still missing an ‘and thus’ in place of that dash.

That’s the micro level, then. This piece is badly written and unnecessarily difficult to understand. It’s like you don’t want people to understand what you’re saying, which leads me to think you’re either scared of criticism or just unbelievable pretentious.

So what of the macro level? Well, basically, who gives a shit? Really? What a pointless waste of a PhD. This contributes almost nothing to the field, and absolutely nothing outside the field, and all with a terrible written style. 1/10 for effort.

8:03 PM  
Blogger bloggin the Question said...

tisatI guess I'll leave Richard's comment stand, though I must confess, I don't understand a word of it. I'm not a sub editor and couldn't get a job as one if I tried. No one is paying me to do this. When I said "meets a reasonable standard" or "meeting with a roesanible stanard" or whatever I said, these weren't the kind of standards I had in mind. Perhaps in future when people make comments they should write them up on a word processing programme and get them checked over before "publishing" them in case anyone is thrown into dark depths of ignorance and confusion by fast and loose use and abuse of grammatical conventions.

12:43 AM  
Anonymous RobS said...

Richard, are you angling for work? Best of luck. Also, I'm not saying you're a prescriptivist crank necessarily but the comma you demand is optional. As for "postulate" not being a verb, check a modern dictionary.

5:21 PM  

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