Along the same lines as Understanding the purpose of determiners/articles/demonstratives in language, wondering why not just use demonstratives everywhere instead of determiners. It looks like the is the most popular word in English, and according to this, demonstratives are lower on the evolutionary hierarchy than determiners. In English, there are only 4 demonstratives from what I've seen, this, that, these and those. So instead of:

The person went to the store.

It would be:

This person went to that store.

Obviously the two sentences don't mean the same thing in current English, but I'm wondering what if they did. Wondering if there are any languages that just stick to determiners. That's probably what this is showing.

Wondering why the need for determiners, why didn't it just stay demonstratives.

  • Interesting question. Personally I find those demonstratives much slower to process, don't you? Note that some languages get by with essentially no or fewer determiners, and they don't bother replacing them with demonstratives or anything else. They find them as redundant as we find "Les chevaux galopent" ("Horses gallop"). Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 12:38
  • I'm not totally sure yet about processing. Wondering if you know of any salient exemplars of no/few determiner-languages.
    – Lance
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 12:47
  • 1
    One go-to example is Mandarin. The indefinite article can be optionally translated by a number and the definite by a demonstrative. One more is Russian, which uses case largely to cover the deficit. Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 13:22
  • 1
    Yes, we can attempt answers along various lines. Historically: How did this change over time / what are the roots of this phenomenon? Typologically: What features of English compensate or are compensated for, as with Slavic case morphology? Syntactically: Are determiners ever seemingly used just to fill slots (like the empty "it" in "it's raining") instead of a role like their usual contribution? Semantically: Is there a fundamental indefinite/definite logical distinction necessitating markers or do some languages have fewer or more distinctions (even counting morphological approaches)? Etc. Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 14:46
  • 1
    A point about the terminology: The demonstrative determinatives function as determiners. Thus in "The/this person went to the store", both "the" and "this" are determinatives functioning as determiners.
    – BillJ
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 17:11

3 Answers 3


I don't consider it easy to justify the distinction between demonstratives and determiners, since as far as I can tell, syntactically at least, there is none.

But your example sentences show exactly why English has all these words:

The person went to the store

It's a good sentence to use in a context where there really is one obvious candidate for "person", and one obvious candidate for "store".

This person went to that store

It's a good sentence to use in a context where there might be more than one person and/or more than one store. I'm sure you can agree that the cognitive load is (at least somewhat) higher when trying to parse this sentence.

Obviously the two sentences don't mean the same thing in current English, but I'm wondering what if they did.

If this meant the and we didn't have the word the, then some other construction would come about to fill the gap left by this. Something like this here, which would probably contract and turn into something like thisser. But this is all very speculative.

But maybe "meaning" isn't the best word to use to describe these words, since they don't refer to objects, actions or anything else. Their use is more a discourse marking tool. The distinction between a/the and this/that/these/those is useful for giving a hint:

  • the person - I expect you know which one I mean

  • this person and that person - I am explicitly telling you which person.

  • a person - I don't expect you to know which one because this is new information to you

I pointed out that there is cognitive load associated with your second sentence above. It's efficient to reduce cognitive load, isn't it? so in the commonest case, the and a are used. And that gives the listener a lot of what s/he needs to go on.

  • 1
    Not really a linguistics answer. (But a valid English Language Learning answer.) Unfortunate that it appears to have been hastily accepted. Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 15:37
  • 1
    @LukeSawczak I think it's related to linguistics since it answers the question "why is it useful". A lot of languages make this distinction in the discourse without using this wordclass. Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 15:44
  • I'll unselect it :) It doesn't quite answer the question you're right.
    – Lance
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 15:50
  • @LancePollard so what can I do to improve? Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 15:51
  • Basically this answer is what my intuition was as well. I still don't understand why the determiners come about in language, why it couldn't just be demonstratives. I feel like the cognitive load bit is because we're reading it using our current understanding of English. To me it seems that just using demonstratives could be enough and simplifies a lot.
    – Lance
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 15:55

In English, articles are used to mark definiteness and often number, demonstratives are used to distinguish a particular entity between multiple entities (adding deixis to definiteness and number), and both are considered determiners.

Some languages mark definiteness with articles or demonstratives, and some mark it morphologically. Some don't mark it at all.

But what makes things like definiteness useful without deixis is the same kind of thing that makes having a "generic" you useful. When information is not known, necessary, or desired, it is generally omitted. When using narrative voice, it makes more sense to use articles rather than overspecify before the frame of reference has even been established.

In English, I would argue that demonstratives add complexity and additional flexibility but articles came straight from numbers, e.g. "an" from "one", and were where we started. So we wouldn't have "stopped" at demonstratives on the way to articles. Articles didn't grow from demonstratives and provide the ability to not reference information that has not yet been provided. Demonstratives are inherently referential, and language has a need to accommodate non-referential information, by either specifying it to a lesser degree or dropping all determiners altogether.


I think the actual question should be phrased like this: why articles at all, why not using demonstratives when you really need to say "this person, not that one", and otherwise, just "person"?

I happen to natively speak a language which has no articles whatsoever, and never felt there's a hole in grammar. Most languages, it seems, have no definite article. When speaking and writing in English, I frequently omit the.

Now, we know PIE had no articles. However, some languages developed them, as far as I can tell, the first one was Greek, then Germanic languages. But why? How do you switch from having no need for them (and omitting them when you speak a language which has them) to having the as the most frequent word?

I think the answer is "we don't know", but it seems to be a common path in language change, and an areal one (look at the map).

WALS: definite articles

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.