I made a mistake.

Here, "a" is called the indefinite article in contrast with the definite article "the".

But does "a" in this sentence denote indefiniteness?

As far as I can tell, "a" is needed here not because we need to make mistake indefinite but because we need to make it an individual, separate entity.

I can prove the above argument as follows.

Once "a" is removed from the above sentence, it becomes ungrammatical as follows:

*I made mistake.

Now, is this sentence ungrammatical because now mistake isn't indefinite anymore without "a"?

Or because now mistake isn't an individual, separate entity anymore without "a"?

If this proves that a in I made a mistake doesn't denote indefiniteness, why do we have to call it the indefinite article?

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    How do you define indefiniteness? – WavesWashSands Dec 18 '17 at 7:41
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    "I made two mistakes" is grammatically "indefinite," contrasted to "I made the two mistakes" – b a Dec 18 '17 at 10:19
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    It is an article, and it is used in contradistinction to the definite article. Next question? – Colin Fine Dec 18 '17 at 11:37
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    Based on your examples, I think you're confusing definiteness and specificity. – curiousdannii Dec 18 '17 at 15:40
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    Etymologically, "a/an" means "one" That's not how etymology works. Etymologically, "a/an" comes from "one", but it does not determine what it means now. Etymology informs our understanding but is no substitute for actually investigating the meaning of words synchronically. – curiousdannii Dec 18 '17 at 15:46

Once "a" is removed from the above sentence, it becomes ungrammatical as follows:

*I made mistake.

Now, is this sentence ungrammatical because now mistake isn't indefinite anymore without "a"?

No, your example sentence is ungrammatical in English because the rules of English require that all singular countable nouns have some sort of determiner.

As far as I can tell, "a" is needed here not because we need to make mistake indefinite but because we need to make it an individual, separate entity.

"Individual, separate entity": this sounds like the semantic category of "specificify".

By contrast, the semantic category of "definiteness" concerns identifiability. You use definite markers when you think your listeners can identify the referents of your noun phrases, and you use indefinite markers when you think your listeners would not be able to identify the referents.

When you say "I made a mistake", you know what the mistake is, but your listeners do not because this is the first time that they've heard about it. If you go on to explain what the mistake is, then it becomes appropriate to say "the mistake" because your listeners can now identify what you're talking about.

Wikipedia gives a few helpful examples which show that the English articles, when they are present, do indeed mark definiteness (identifiability), not specificity.

I'm looking for the manager, Ms Lee. [definite, specific]
I'm looking for the manager, whoever that may be. [definite, non-specific]
There's a certain word that I can never remember. [indefinite, specific]
Think of a word, any word. [indefinite, non-specific]

  • Thanks. But even if the listener knows what the mistake is, should the speaker say "I made the mistake"? I think I'd most likely say "I made a mistake" even my listener knows what the mistake is. So, it's less reason for us to call "a" the indefinite article, I think. – JK2 Dec 18 '17 at 16:44
  • @JK2 There are probably social factors with the word "mistake" where even if everyone knows about the mistake, they pretend not to so that the mistake maker can save face. For most nouns, if the speaker believes the listener knows what they're talking about it would be wrong and confusing to say "a". – curiousdannii Dec 18 '17 at 16:46
  • The famous syntax to save face in the wake of mistakes is mistakes were made. And no, in real pragmatics, once the mistake is identified, people would talk about "the mistake", as in "someone unplugged the mainframe" / "who made the mistake?". – Dan Bron Dec 18 '17 at 16:50
  • @curiousdannii I've been thinking about this. How could a mistake maker possibly "save face" by saying "a mistake" instead of "the mistake" when they're already admitting to the fact that they made "a" mistake?? Moreover, even when you say something opposite to "mistake", you tend to use "a" even when the listener already knows about it. For example, when you praise someone for their work that they already know about, you say, "You did a great job", not "You did the great job". – JK2 Dec 21 '17 at 3:12
  • @DanBron In your 'mainframe' example, let's say, everybody already knows that someone unplugged the mainframe. Now, the one who accidentally did it can easily say "I made a mistake" instead of "I made the mistake". Moreover, in your "mistakes were made" example, the "saving face" factor lies not in "mistakes" being without "the", but in the sentence being in the passive voice. – JK2 Dec 21 '17 at 3:17

The "indefinite article" is called that because it is an article* and it is used with indefinite noun phrases. It certainly isn't a necessary part of all indefinite noun phrases: the English indefinite article is specifially a singular article, unlike the definite article, so it isn't used with plural or non-count nouns.

As you've noted, not all indefinite noun phrases have "a/an", so in most contexts the presence of the indefinite article doesn't exactly mark indefiniteness. Rather, in many contexts indefiniteness in English is indicated mainly by the absence of the definite article. The presence of the indefinite article with an indefinite common noun indicates that the noun phrase is grammatically singular and count. When the indefinite article is absent, a noun phrase is usually interpreted as plural or indefininte noncount (e.g. the difference between "a stone" and "stones" or "stone"); if that interpretation is impossible, the noun phrase will just seem to be ungrammatical (as in your example "*I made mistake").

The indefinite article does serve as a marker of indefiniteness when it appears before proper nouns that usually lack a definite article even when they are definite, like people's given names. A noun phrase like "Sandy" is definite; a noun phrase like "a Sandy" is indefinite.

*The definition of "article"

The definition of the word "article" seems to be somewhat unclear. Its application to "a/an" is traditional, not necessarily based on any deep underlying connection between this word and "the" (although they do have similarities; they are both determiners).

For example, Wikipedia says that "The articles in English grammar are the and a/an, and in certain contexts some", whereas another source refers to some as an "article equivalent". Obviously, these are not particularly advanced linguistic sources; I just am trying to make the point that at least some people seem to be confused about, or disagree about, what exactly the word "article" refers to. So you shouldn't necessarily expect the terminology in this area to have much explanatory value.

A point similar to the one that you seem to be making was made in "On the Article in English", by David M. Perlmutter, in 1970. Perlmutter says that

If this is correct, the relationship between the definite article and the indefinite article in English is quite different from what has been generally supposed. Grammarians have worked on the assumption that NP's may bear either a definite or an indefinite article, and that the two constitute some sort of opposition. If the analysis given here is correct, however, the indefinite article is simply a numeral like all other numerals, and the occurence or non-occurence of the definite article is a completely independent phenomenon.

I don't know how Perlmutter's paper was received (some parts of the analysis seem a bit far-fetched to me), and I don't know what kind of progress has been made on the characterization of the indefinite article since then; I know that I've seen other analyses that treat the indefinite article as some kind of special reduced version of the numeral "one" (which is consistent with the etymology, although that doesn't prove that it's a correct synchronic analysis).

  • Thanks. Then, shouldn't "a" be called "the singular article" rather than "the indefinite article"? – JK2 Dec 18 '17 at 16:35
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    JK2: the referents of the is also singular. "The star" (one star), "a star" (one star). And yes, works the same way for "mistake". – Dan Bron Dec 18 '17 at 16:36
  • @JK2 Is "a few oranges" singular? – curiousdannii Dec 18 '17 at 16:43
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    There's no way to argue "few clams" is considered a "individual separate entity". No one has an image in their heads of "few clams" as a individual, separate entity. You might be arguing that "a few" is grammatically singular, as in takes singular agreement, but the terminology "definite" and "indefinite" arise from the semantics, not syntax, of the referent, and this whole conversation has revolved around the meaning of these articles. No, there's no way to make an argument that "a" is "the singular article". The debate bottoms out where it started: a is indefinite. – Dan Bron Dec 18 '17 at 17:15
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    @DanBron Alternatively, "a few" as a whole is considered as a determinative. So, "a" in "a few clams" does not directly determine "clams", but only combines with "few" to form a determinative in its own right: "a few", which subsequently determines "clams". The same is the case with "a little" in "a little money", where "a" doesn't determine "money" directly, cause "money" is uncountable. Instead, "a" combines with "little" to form a different determinative "a little", which then determines "money". – JK2 Dec 19 '17 at 4:10

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