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5.1.1.2. Definiteness and indefiniteness
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This section discusses one of the semantic core distinctions between noun phrases, namely, the distinction between definite and indefinite noun phrases. We start in Subsections I and II by showing that definite noun phrases are typically used to refer to some entity in domain D, whereas indefinite noun phrases are typically used to introduce some new entity into domain D. This does not mean, however, that the introduction of a new entity into domain D always requires the use of an indefinite noun phrase; in Subsection III, we will discuss several cases in which this can also be done by means of a definite noun phrase.

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[+]  I.  Definite noun phrases

As their name suggests, the definite articles de and het serve to pick out a definite referent from the set denoted by their NP-complement; cf. the discussion of (1). This definite referent may be a specific entity or a group of entities in domain D. The former is the case if the nominal predicate is singular, as in (17).

Example 17
a. De kat is ziek.
  the cat  is ill
b. Het boek is gisteren verzonden.
  the book  has.been  yesterday  sent
  'The book was sent yesterday.'

The noun phrase in example (17a) presupposes that domain D contains a single entity that satisfies the description provided by the NP kat, and it is predicated of this entity that it is ill. Because domain D consists of the shared knowledge of the speaker and listener, it is also typically assumed that the latter is able to uniquely identify this entity. The sentence in (17a) would be infelicitous if domain D contains two entities that satisfy the description of the NP; in that case, the description would be made more specific (e.g., de kater'the tomcat') in order to satisfy the requirement that a singular definite noun phrase refers to a unique entity. Similarly, the noun phrase in (17b) presupposes that there is only a single book that is part of domain D, and it is predicated of this book that it was sent yesterday.
      If the noun phrase is plural, it does not refer to a single entity but to a set. Again, it is presupposed that the listener is able to uniquely identify this set. A speaker uttering a sentence like (18a) presupposes that the listener knows that he is referring to, for instance, his own two cats and the three cats of his friend Mary. Something similar holds for (18b).

Example 18
a. De katten zijn ziek.
  the cats  are  ill
b. De boeken zijn gisteren verzonden.
  the books  have been  yesterday  sent

The discussion above amounts to saying that the use of a definite article implies that set A in Figure 1 does not include all entities that satisfy the description of the NP, but only those entities that are part of domain D: the referent of the noun phrase is assumed to be identifiable for both the speaker and the addressee. In this sense definite noun phrases are typically D-linked. The same thing holds for definite noun phrases headed by a non-count noun as in De wijn staat in de keuken'The wine is in the kitchen'; cf. the discussion below (7).

[+]  II.  Indefinite noun phrases

The indefinite articles een'a' and ∅ lack the implication usually found with definite articles that the entities in set A are part of domain D, and hence known to both the speaker and the user. On the contrary, indefinite noun phrases are often used to introduce a new entity into domain D in so-called presentative clauses (clauses that introduce a new entity into domain D). Presentative clauses in which the indefinite noun phrase functions as the subject typically take the form of an expletive construction such as (19a). If the indefinite noun phrase has some other function in the clause, as in (19b), presentative clauses are not formally marked.

Example 19
Presentative clauses
a. Er ligt een lijk in de tuin.
  there  lies  a corpse  in the garden
  'There is a corpse is lying in the garden.'
b. Ik vond gisteren een lijk in mijn tuin.
  found  yesterday  a corpse  in my garden
  'Yesterday, I found a corpse in my garden.'

The examples in (19) introduce a new entity into domain D, which is therefore not known to the addressee by definition. However, indefinite noun phrases can also be used if the referent could in principle be uniquely identified by the hearer, but the speaker does not want to be too specific, for instance, because that would not be relevant in the given context. An example such as this is given in (20): this example is felicitous even if the speaker could have been more specific by referring to the book in question as Jackendoffʼs Semantic Structures; see Section 5.1.1.3 for more discussion.

Example 20
Ik heb een boek uit je kast gehaald.
  have  a book  out of  your bookcase  taken
'Iʼve taken a book from your shelves.'

      The discussion above amounts to saying that, unlike the case with definite noun phrases, the use of an indefinite noun phrase in presentative clauses does not imply that set A in Figure 1 only contains entities that are part of domain D. It rather contains all entities that satisfy the description of the NP, and the referent of the noun phrase therefore need not be identifiable for the speaker and the hearer. In this sense indefinite noun phrases are typically non-D-linked. The same thing holds for indefinite noun phrases headed by a non-count noun like in Er staat wijn in de keuken'There is wine in the kitchen'; see the discussion below example (7) in Section 5.1.1.1.

[+]  III.  Special cases

Subsections I and II have shown that the use of a definite noun phrase indicates that the referent in question is part of domain D, whereas indefinite noun phrases may introduce new referents into domain D. There are, however, certain special restrictions on the use of indefinite noun phrases, which is due to the fact that entities can sometimes also be introduced into domain D by using a definite noun phrase. Without claiming to be exhaustive, we will briefly discuss in the following subsections some typical situations in which this is possible.

[+]  A.  Common knowledge

Picture the following situation. John is walking, and he meets someone he has never seen before. Given that domain D is largely determined by agreement among the participants in the discourse, one would assume that the conversation between John and the other person starts with a tabula rasa. However, the fact that John could not utter example (21a) without sounding silly shows that certain entities cannot be introduced into discourse by means of an indefinite noun phrase: (21a) suggests that there is more than one sun that could be relevant in this context, and this conflicts with the knowledge that we normally ascribe to people. Therefore the use of a definite noun phrase is preferred. This shows that the use of definite noun phrases does not entirely depend on domain D, but may also reflect intuitions of the speaker about the extra-linguistic knowledge one can ascribe to all individuals (in his society). Or, to say it differently, some entities like the sun, moon, etc. can be evoked in any conversation without being explicitly part of domain D; simply mentioning the sun is sufficient for any speaker to identify the entity the noun phrase is referring to.

Example 21
a. Er komt een zon op.
  there  rises  a sun  prt.
  'A sun is rising.'
b. De zon komt op.
  the sun  rises  prt.
[+]  B.  Semantically implied entities

Anyone hearing the sentence in (22) will conclude that the noun phrase de kleertjes'the clothes' refers to the clothes of the baby. This is due to the fact that the verb aankleden'to dress' can be paraphrased as “putting clothes on someone”. The fact that the clothes of the baby are semantically implied by the description of the event in the first conjunct apparently makes it unnecessary to introduce the clothes of the baby by means of an indefinite noun phrase.

Example 22
Jan wou de baby aankleden, maar de kleertjes waren nog nat.
  Jan wanted  the baby  prt.-dress  but  the clothes  were  still  wet
'Jan wanted to dress the baby, but the clothes were still wet.'
[+]  C.  Inferable entities

Appealing to the meaning of the verb aankleden does not account for the fact that the noun phrase de kleertjes in (22) can be replaced by the noun phrase de luiers'the diapers', as in (23). After all, the verb aankleden'to dress' cannot be paraphrased as “putting diapers on someone”.

Example 23
Jan wou de baby aankleden, maar de luiers waren nog nat.
  Jan wanted  the baby  prt.-dress  but  the diapers  were  still  wet
'Jan wanted to dress the baby, but the diapers were still wet.'

The fact that the definite article is acceptable in the second conjunct shows that language users have richly structured schemata of certain events at their disposal. A language user knows that babies generally wear diapers and, as a result, the event of dressing a baby typically evokes the idea of diapers, which therefore need not be introduced by an indefinite noun phrase. These structured schemata are available not only for events but also for entities. Speakers know that a wedding involves a bride and a bridegroom, best man, a priest or a civil servant, etc. Therefore these entities need not be introduced by an indefinite noun phrase, but can be referred to directly by means of a definite noun phrase, as in (24a). Similarly, for many people the mere mention of a house is sufficient to evoke a picture of a building with a garden, a front door, a chimney, etc., and as is shown in (24b) these entities can be immediately referred to by means of a definite noun phrase.

Example 24
a. Ik was daarnet bij een huwelijk. De bruid was gekleed in een lange witte jurk.
  I was just now at a wedding  the bride was dressed  in a long white dress
b. Ik heb een huis in Tilburg gekocht. De tuin is heel groot.
  have  a house in Tilburg bought  the garden is very big
  'I bought a house in Tilburg. The garden is very big.'

The acceptability of examples like (23) and (24) is, of course, due to the fact that parts of the speakerʼs and listenerʼs conceptions of reality are culturally determined, and therefore have sufficient overlap to invoke the desired inferences in these examples.

[+]  D.  Invited inferences

Occasionally, however, inferences are not socially determined. The use of a definite noun phrase must then be seen as an invitation to the listener to establish some relation between the referent of the definite noun phrase and some known entity in domain D. Consider an example such as (25a). Although it is not typically assumed that houses have dogs, the listener is invited to connect the referent of the noun phrase de hond to the earlier mentioned house (or, alternatively, to Jan). The most plausible interpretation is that the dog lives in the house (or that Jan has a dog with him). Replacing the definite noun phrase de hond by an indefinite one, as in (25b), would not force the listener to adopt such an interpretation; in that case, the referent of een hond'a dog' may equally well be totally unrelated to the referents in domain D.

Example 25
a. Jan liep langs het huis. De hond blafte.
  Jan walked  along the house  the dog  barked
b. Jan liep langs het huis. Een hond blafte.
  Jan walked  along the house  a dog  barked
[+]  E.  Conclusion

This brief discussion of the use of definite and indefinite noun phrases shows that a simple description in syntactic and/or semantic terms is not possible. It is not the case that entities are always introduced in domain D by employing indefinite noun phrases. They can also be evoked by the lexical meaning of words or be made available by common knowledge, including generally available structured schemata of events and entities. The most we can say is that the use of a definite noun phrase indicates that the speaker assumes that the listener is able to assign the intended referent a proper place in domain D by connecting it to some referent that is part of this domain. A full description of the distribution of indefinite and definite noun phrases must therefore appeal to notions from linguistics, semantics, pragmatics and cognition. Since this will clearly take us too far afield here, we refer the reader to Keizer (1992b: chapter 5) and Alexiadou et al. (2007: part II), which provide good overviews of the contributions these fields have made.

References:
  • Alexiadou, Artemis, Haegeman, Liliane & Stavrou, Melita2007Noun phrases in the generative perspectiveBerlin/New YorkMouton de Gruyter
  • Keizer, Evelien1992Predicates as referring expressionsFortescue, Michael, Harder, Peter & Kristoffersen, Lars (eds.)Layered structure and reference in a functional perspectiveDordrechtForis Publications
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