Indefinite noun pattern

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The indefinite noun phrase is a semantic-grammatical pattern consisting of an indefinite delimiter (a/an) plus a singular noun. Its primary function is indicating a noun that is new to the context, or otherwise new or unfamiliar to the listener. Examples include:

  • I must buy a new watch, since my old one died.
  • A chicken tried to cross the road, but was unsuccessful.
  • I don't want a gnu -- I want a ewe.
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

The term 'delimiter' is used here instead of traditional jargon like 'indefinite article'. Delimiters (a/an, the) are markers that delimit the noun phrase to a more specific type of meaning. The analysis below is sketched out in Lee (2017)[1]

1 Basic pattern

The primary function of indefinite singular nouns is to indicate a noun that is new, unknown, or unfamiliar to the listener, at the time it is mentioned. This is in fact how the term 'indefinite' should be understood and taught.

  • Indefinite noun pattern: A indefinite singular noun with a/an indicates an item or entity that is new, unfamiliar, or unknown to the listener.

This contrasts with the definite noun pattern with the definite delimiter the for items that are known or familiar, or assumed to be known or familiar:

  • Definite pattern: A definite noun with the indicates an item or entity that is known or familiar to the listener.

The definite / indefinite distinction is traditionally taught in terms of the first mention rule and the second or subsequent mention rule, which can be summarized like so.

  • First mention rule: The first time a noun is mentioned, it is indefinite and marked with a/an.
  • Subsequent mention rule: When a noun is mentioned for a second time or subsequent instances, it is definite and is marked with the.

There are several problems with these rules. It does not clearly distinguish between object / entity nouns like "an apple" from material nouns (like "coffee") and abstract nouns (like "existence") that are not marked with delimiters. The terms definite and indefinite can be opaque or non-intuitive for learners, and require a clearer explanation. The rule is seemingly violated, for reasons that are unclear or confusing to learners, and they are taught, or they assume, that such cases are "exceptions" to the rules, which is confusing for them. In fact, apparent exceptions are actually due to more specialized patterns or uses of definite and indefinite nouns phrases. One example can be when a noun is continually used as an indefinite noun:

  • I want a man who knows what love is-- I want a man who knows how to cook, a man who knows how to raise kids, and a man who knows how to have intelligent conversation.

The basic indefinite pattern can be extended to specialized uses and nuances, as described below.

2 Advanced patterns

2.1 Instantiations

Some uses of the indefinite are related to the specialized uses of the marked singular noun pattern, such as instantations--specific instances, examples, or types of something.

2.1.1 Materials

An indefinite noun can indicate a particular type of material, versus a general material (bare singular noun).

  • This is a plastic that can be easily shaped.

2.1.2 Specific events

Specific events or instances of an activity are marked with a/an, or the for familiar ones, as opposed to general activities that are indicated with bare nouns.

  • Beware of theft. A theft occurred last night. The theft was rather daring.
  • I like jogging. That was a great jog.

2.2 Hypothetical nouns

Indefinite delimiters can indicate a noun whose existence is hypothetical or potential, but not yet realized. It is unfamiliar or unknown to the speaker and to the listener, and can it can be used continuously with a/an for repeated mentions of the noun, because it is hypothetical and unknown.

  • I want a man who knows what love is-- I want a man who knows how to cook, a man who knows how to raise kids, and a man who knows how to have an intelligent conversation.

2.3 Definitions

The idea of potential or hypothetical entities can be extended to definitions. Many definitions use indefinite noun phrases, even repeatedly on subsequent mentions of a noun, because it is still definitional rather than a specific, known, familiar entity to the listener.

  • A penguin is a flightless aquatic bird. Such a bird does not use its wings for flying.

This is a type of definite via hypothetical example. Other types of definitions are possible for different nuances and contexts. Plural bare nouns are commonly used for a more generic style, descriptive definition based on generalizations over a category, such as 'penguin' as a category of bird (#2 below). An exemplar noun with the is also possible, for a more vivid description (#3 below, for example, would be suitable for a narrative or a nature documentary).

  1. A penguin is a flightless aquatic bird.
  2. Penguins are flightless aquatic birds.
  3. The penguin is a flightless aquatic bird.

2.4 Summary

These are summarized below.

Usage Examples Contrasts with
New, unknown, unfamiliar A chicken tried to cross the road. Known, familiar:
A chicken tried to cross the road. The chicken was unsuccessful.
Instantiation: Type of material This is a plastic that can be easily shaped. General material:
Plastic can come in many forms.
Instantiation: Event (new to listener) I had a good jog. Event (familiar): I had a good jog. The jog was exhilarating.
General activity: I like jogging.
Hypothetical use of nouns I want a new job -- a job that is less stressful. Actual entities:
I want the job (the one that you are advertising).
Definitions A cicada is an insect with vocal cords in the abdomen. Generic plural descriptions: Cicadas are insects with vocal cords in the abdomen.
Exemplars: The male cicada has vocal cords in the abdomen for singing.

3 Teaching indefinites

The basic idea of unfamiliar can be inferred by students, probably with some coaching. Interesting narratives can juxtapose the definite and indefinite. These can be explained to students by asking them how well the picture the nouns upon hearing them. At first, they do not have a mental picture (unfamiliar indefinite) at first, but later, they have a clearer mental picture of the referents.

Function Indefinite Contrasts with
New, unfamiliar, unknown
cf. familiar, known
Farmer Brown went into his chicken coop to find his best chicken – a large, white rooster named Buster – to slaughter and prepare for tonight’s dinner. Buster sometimes tried to escape, so he was kept in a special cage. He entered the coop, but didn’t see Buster in his usual cage. He looked around the cages, and then to the corner of the room. In fact, Buster was not in any of the cages. However, the rooster was waiting in the corner with a knife in his hand, ready to take on the farmer in hand-to-hand combat.
Events, instances
cf. general activities
Every two days I go for a jog, or if I am tired, then at least a walk. Occasionally I go for a swim or a good climb on a mountain near the city. An exercise that I also particularly enjoy is bicycling. A couple of times a year, a good bungee jump provides a good catharsis and stress release. Aerobic exercise like swimming, bicycling, brisk walking, jogging, and rock climbing can be helpful for managing one’s weight and for maintaining energy levels. Occasional extreme sports like bungee jumping may not contribute to weight management, but can offer psychological benefits.
General definition
cf. generic description
A lynx is a medium-sized wildcat known for its reflective eyes. An ocelot is a small wildcat found in Central and South America, which was once prized for its fur. Lions belong to the cat family, which also includes various cats: lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, snow leopards, cheetahs, lynxes, and others.
General definition
cf. exemplar
Amazon is an example of a revolutionary new service that was created by a visionary entrepreneur – the type of person that is known as a first-mover. A first-mover is a person who first develops and markets an entirely new product or service. The first-mover is a person who first develops and markets an entirely new product or service.

3.1 Practice activities

Many activities can be used to practice a particular function of the indefinite pattern, or a particular function of the indefinite in contrast to a particular definite (the) or a plural generic function (bare singular or bare plural). These can be done for oral and/or written practice activities. For example:

  • Shopping list (e.g., a watermelon cf. watermelons, a steak cf. steak as material)
  • Shopping list for other items -- office supplies, furniture, etc.
  • Inventory list
  • Describe typical items in an office, an apartment, a house, etc.
  • Describe your favorite activity; how/when did you come to enjoy it or become good at it?
  • Describe an important term in your field of work or study.
  • Describe your field to someone who does not know your field.
  • Write an encyclopedia style description of your favorite animal.

4 See also

4.1 References

  1. Lee, Kent. (2017). A “the” or the “a”? L2 learner problems and patterns. Korea TESOL Journal 13(2), 25-48.