Marked singular noun pattern

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The marked singular noun pattern is a semantic-grammatical pattern with a simple noun phrase that is marked with a delimiter (a/an/the). In traditional grammatical parlance, it is equated with or described with so-called count (or countable) nouns. Marked singulars contrast with the bare singular noun pattern, and they contrast with marked nouns, especially marked singular nouns.

Examples of marked singulars include:

  • I ordered a latte, not the caramel mocha.
  • The computer came with a high-end graphics card.

The analysis below is sketched out in Lee (2017)[1]

1 Basic pattern

The basic, default meaning of marked singulars is objects -- nouns for objects, things, items, or distinct entities. This contrasts with singular bare nouns, which by default denote materials (e.g., juice cf. a juice).

  • Marked Singular Pattern. Marked singular nouns (with the, a/an) indicate objects, things, entities that we conceptualize as distinct things.

We thus speak of drinking a (bottle of) water, a coffee, a juice, and we speak of buying or eating a chicken, a salad, or a cake.

  • Bare Singular Pattern. Bare singular nouns indicate materials or substances; this constitutes their basic, default meaning for physical nouns.

We speak of drinking water, coffee or juice, and buying and eating chicken, salad or cake. This contrasts with the singular marked pattern:

These basic patterns apply to physical nouns, which are marked by the following perceptual properties, unlike abstract nouns: (1) They are more tangible and perceivable. (2) They are more imageable, that is, when asked, one can imagine and mentally picture the noun.

Object nouns are somewhat more imageable than material nouns, and more distinct, physically. Objects have strict physical boundaries that distinguish them from other objects or from their background, while material nouns are less distinct. Thus, object nouns have a greater degree of the semantic properties of entitivity (or entatitivity). They have more of the property of physical boundedness, in that they are perceived as as spatially bounded. "A juice" is more conceptually bounded compared to "juice," "a coffee" is more bounded than "coffee," and "a chicken" (a whole bird) is more bounded than "chicken" (meat, material).

Marked nouns, especially singulars, are traditionally treated as count nouns in materials for students and teachers. This, however, is problematic. A number of nouns can refer to objects or conceptually concrete items in one context (e.g., “a chicken” or “a nanofiber”), but can easily refer to materials or substances in another context (“chicken” as meat, or “nanofiber” as a material). This distinction is not only relevant to everyday contexts (e.g., shopping or eating, where the difference between “chicken” and “a chicken” can be important), but also to academic contexts, where the difference between “nanofiber” material and “a nanofiber” crucially refer to different noun types and referents. It also can change the essential meaning of some nouns, e.g., “tape” (an adhesive material) versus “a tape” (a cassette tape), or “iron” (metal) and “an iron” (a fabric-pressing device, or a golf club).

The basic meaning patterns are summarized below.

The basic meaning patterns are summarized below.

  Form Meaning Examples
1. Singular bare noun
Material / substance noun coffee, chicken
2. Singular marked noun:
a/an/the + singular noun
Object / item / thing, i.e., physical objects a cup, a coffee, a chicken, the chicken

2 Advanced patterns: Specialized extensions of basic pattern

The basic bare singular pattern is applied to other non-physical nouns to derive more abstract meanings

2.1 Instantiations of materials

A marked singular noun, especially the definite the, can indicate a specific batch, quantity, set, type, or example of a material, and thus, an instantiation of a bare material noun. The indefinite a/an can have a similar meaning, but possibly more hypothetical or definitional.

  1. On Mars, do not drink the water. The water of Mars is contaminated with perchlorates, and is thus poisonous.
  2. We heated 12 g solution at 120C, then we spun the solution in a centrifuge.
  3. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a plastic that is used in manufacturing many types of furniture and household items.
  4. A superplastic is a plastic that can resist heavy impacts, say, from a hammer.

2.2 Events cf. activities (instantiations of activities)

General activities are indicated by bare nouns, while marked singular nouns indicate specific instances of an activity. General activities are not bounded in time or space, e.g., one speaks of jogging as a general activity that could occur anytime or anywhere. In contrast, a specific event ('a jog') occurs in a particular time and/or place. The marked noun is thus like an instantiation of the general activity, and thus, of the bare noun concept.

  1. I like jogging. That was a great jog.
  2. I enjoy swimming. That was a great swim yesterday.
  3. Beware of theft. A theft occurred last night. The theft was rather daring.

2.3 Instantiations of states, properties, conditions

General conditions, states, and properties, like general activities, can be instantiated, often with a postmodifier after the noun, such as a prepositional phrase or relative clause. This is most common with the definite the, but sometimes also with the indefinite a/an for a more hypothetical or definitional nuance.

  1. Dryness can be a symptom of a skin condition. The dryness of my skin is exacerbated by hot indoor air from heaters.
  2. I am in great despair. This is a despair that I cannot handle without large quantities of chocolate.

2.4 Instantiations of abstract nouns

The meanings of abstract nouns can be delimited; with a delimiter, the noun can refer to a specific instance, type, or example of the quality. This is often done with a postmodifier after the noun, such as a prepositional phrase or relative clause. This is most common with the definite the, but sometimes also with the indefinite a/an for a more hypothetical or definitional nuance.

  1. I need more support. I need the support of all my employees.
  2. Redness could be a sign of a skin condition. The redness of your face is a possible symptom of eczema.
  3. A cheetah is a wildcat that can accelerate up to 80 kph.

2.5 Summary

These are summarized below.

Usage Examples Contrasts with
Objects, items, entities a ball, a computer, a language, a juice, a coffee, a chicken Material noun equivalents:
juice, coffee, chicken
Material instances / instantiations the carbon, a batch of silicon; a plastic (i.e., a type of plastic) Material nouns:
carbon, silicon, plastic
Events (instantiations of general activities) There was a theft yesterday.
We had a good hike.
General activity:
Beware of theft. I love mountain hiking.
Instantiations of states, conditions, properties The dryness of my skin General state, condition, property:
Dryness can be a symptom of a deeper problem.
Instantiations of abstract nouns The love of my life Abstract nouns, used generally:

All you need is love.

3 Teaching the Marked Noun Pattern

For the basic physical distinction between bare and marked singular nouns, simple texts can be presented that illustrate both uses of the same nouns. Students can engage in group discussion to figure out the patterns, followed by teacher-guided presentation of the patterns.

Bare nouns (materials) Marked nouns (objects)
Stone or rock have been used for human-made structures from the beginnings of human history. ‘Rock’ is more often a geological term, or a term for everyday pieces of rock, while ‘stone’ is more often a term for the material, especially for building materials that have been processed. Rock, as in large pieces of rock, were first used for fashioning human dwellings. Later, humans found how to quarry and cut stone, such as granite and marble, for buildings. At first it would have been hard to drag a large rock to build a primitive house, and the pieces might not fit together well to make a good house. Humans later learned to cut and transport stone from quarries to build buildings. In building the Egyptian pyramids, for example, a large stone could be carried on rollers or loose sand by a group of people.

A normal piece of rock is simply a rock, or a stone in more formal or literary style. A large rock formation might also be referred to as a stone.

Short texts can illustrate the more advanced uses as well, though students will have a harder time guessing the meanings.

General activity Specific event
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 other health benefits. 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.

3.1 Activities

  • Describing the parts of something, e.g., the parts of a house, an office building, a business office, an airplane, a starship.
  • Creating an inventory (e.g, of an office, shop, or warehouse)
  • Writing an itemized budget, e.g., for setting a new lab, for a construction project

3.2 Contrasting bare singulars with other patterns

This can be done with group tasks in class like these. For example, a shopping list involves bare nouns (yogurt, tofu, chicken), object nouns (a chicken, a watermelon), and plural nouns for items sold as sets (potatoes, carrots). Some items could vary, depending on how it is packaged, e.g.: a pineapple (whole), pineapple (chopped, in a container), or pineapples (several, say, for a party).

  • Creating a shopping list (grocery shopping)
  • Shopping list (e.g., office supplies)
  • Writing a proposal, e.g., money and items needed for a new lab or office

3.3 More complex or interactive tasks

Group activities with topics like these could lead to a written or oral product (e.g., a paragraph or short presentation).

  • Describe an important concept, theory, or discovery in your field. Explain how it was discovered, its importance, and examples of its application.
  • Describe a particular artistic genre or subgenre (of film, music, novels, etc.); then discuss a specific example, and explain how it fulfills and differs from the standards of the genre.
  • Describe one of your favorite activities. Explain how you discovered it and became good at it.

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.