According to this answer to the question : Do some languages have articles besides the definite and indefinite articles?

It is worth noting, I think, that "article" is not a theoretical primitive in (most if not all) contemporary generative theories of syntax. A generative syntactician would say that languages have larger or smaller inventories of determiners (e.g. this, that; this is the category from which the developed) and quantifiers (e.g. one, many, no; this is the category from which a(n) developed). However, articles are a notion of classical grammar and are definitionally restricted to the definite and indefinite.

(Some grammarians might include more kinds of articles, as the Wikipedia article on articles does. But this reflects more a taxonomic whim of the analyst than a fact about language.)

It seems to me that it is more meaningful to say that the is a special kind of determiners and a/an is a special kind of quantifiers. How can we explain, then, that grammarians classify them together? Is the reason linguistic or is it just a convenience to make it easier to learn grammar? Or because it just "makes sense"? And also, why is the partitive classified in the same group?

1 Answer 1


You need to look at how they pattern, where they can be used, how they behave in the phrase and clause. If "a/an" and "the" go in the same position relative to a noun, then having a term that covers the words that go in that position is worthwhile, ditto for having terms for the position itself, and how other words place themselves relative to the noun and the whatchamacallit.

a red car
the red car

Very simplified here: Can you use more than one of a and the in front of a noun? Nope. Can you move the adjective (red) to the left of the whatchamacallit? No. If you want to add more adjectives, where do you put them? Between the whatchamacallit and the noun. Are there other words that can go in the whatchamacallit-position in English? Well, then that is also the same type of whatchamacallit. In English it just so happens that whatchamacallits that pattern in this particular way are traditionally called articles.

Part of speech/word class is only defined for a specific language. Other languages have other parts-of-speech/word classes that pattern differently. There are similarities, but: if you want to give a pattern in language A the same name as a possibly similar pattern in language B, you need to back it up, be it with examples, analysis or cites/references. The same rough "meaning" is not enough.

  • some red car, any red car... still 'some' and 'any' are not called articles AFAIK.
    – dainichi
    May 17, 2012 at 2:12
  • The patterns I gave above are not exhaustive, as I said: simplified. If there is a pattern unique to "the" and "a" then there's your reason. The pattern I gave is a subset of the patterns for determinatives of which the articles are a subset. See The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language chapter 5, sections 4 to 7.
    – kaleissin
    May 17, 2012 at 11:47
  • ok, could you list some of the patterns that distinguish the and a from some and any?
    – dainichi
    May 18, 2012 at 0:00
  • English is my second language and I haven't studied it beyond high school. CGEL (the book) doesn't seem to list any patterns that only "a/the" can be in. Hmm... you can say "some of the cars" but not "the of the cars".
    – kaleissin
    May 18, 2012 at 8:16
  • Sure, just like you can say "some cars" but not "a cars" and you can say "some bread" but not "a bread". I'm not saying that all usages of "some" behave like articles, but that some of them might.
    – dainichi
    May 18, 2012 at 9:05

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