A, an, the, definiteness and specificity

This is my attempt at recombobulating my thoughts on article use. Information is mainly drawn from Ionin, Ko & Wexler (2004) and Thornbury (2009). All errors mine.

The following are the (informal) definitions used by Ionin, Ko & Wexler (2004) for definiteness and specificity:

[+definite] the speaker and hearer presuppose the existence of a unique individual

[+specific] the speaker intends to refer to a unique individual and considers this individual to possess some noteworthy property

Ionin, Ko & Wexler, 2004, p.5

The paper argues that English as a two article system (a/an, the) favours the definite-indefinite categorization hence the is definite and a indefinite and it does not mark any articles for specificity. Other languages like Samoan favour the specific-nonspecific categorization where they use le with specific and se with non-specific and does not mark any articles for definiteness.

Side note: apparently in spoken English this can be used to specify nouns (i.e. referential use of this vs demonstrative use) hence we can consider also that English is a three-article system!

The theory is that learners fluctuate between categorizing nouns on definiteness and categorizing nouns on specificity until they eventually settle on definiteness as their proficiency grows.

Both systems of definiteness and specificity predict that learners will use one article the for definite specific and one article a for indefinite non-specific.
However these systems differ on what article will be used with specific indefinites and non-specific definites.

That is the definiteness system will group specific definites with non-specific definites i.e. predict use of the article the; and will group specific indefinites with non-specific indefinites i.e. predict the use of the article a. See Table 1:


Table 1, Ionin, Ko & Wexler, 2004, p.13

By contrast the specificity system will do the opposite – it will group definite specifics with indefinite specifics i.e. predict the use of the article the; and it will group definite non-specifics with indefinite non-specifics i.e. predict the use of the article a. See Table 2:


Table 2, Ionin, Ko & Wexler, 2004, p.13

This means that the theory will predict overuse of the article the in specific indefinites and overuse of the article a in non-specific definites. See Table 3:


Table 3, adapted from Ionin, Ko & Wexler, 2004, p.19

So what does this mean for teaching articles? Not sure but knowing that learners will tend to overuse the with indefinites and overuse a/an with definites due to the conflict with the specificity system is enlightening. Further I found the definitions in the paper very useful as I was confused about how specificity was different from definiteness.

I’ll put here a revised table (Table 4) from Scott Thornbury’s blog on articles that does not have the confusing (for me) label general and colour coded for overuse as in Table 3 above.


Table 4, adapted from Thornbury, 2009

Finally for your students do check Glenys Hanson’s exercises and flowchart.

Thanks for reading.


Ionin, T., Ko, H., & Wexler, K. (2004). Article semantics in L2 acquisition: The role of specificity. Language Acquisition, 12(1), 3-69.

Thornbury, S. (2009). A is for Articles (1) – An AZ of ELT – WordPress.com. Retrieved April 2, 2016, from https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2009/12/12/a-is-for-articles-1/.


9 thoughts on “A, an, the, definiteness and specificity

  1. Thanks for the citation. You might be interested how I attempt to deal with these issues in the new edition of About Language (Cambridge, in press):

    9 ‘Bad’ rules Here are some commonly cited rules for using determiners that are either wrong or incomplete. How do the examples below each one (from the Cambridge International Corpus) contradict them? Can you improve the rules?

    a) We use the indefinite article a/an when we are talking about a single countable noun in a general non-specific way.

    1) On the last day of training, I happened to be sitting next to a doctor from San Diego.
    2) Back at the hotel Ruth and I ate half a watermelon.
    3) I treated myself to an icecream machine this Christmas- a real one, with its own cooling element.

    b) A/an is used when we mention a singular, countable noun for the first time…

    4) On a visit to a restaurant in California the waiter placed four plates of food on the table and left.
    5) But Christmas Day was relaxing this year. No getting up at the crack of dawn to put the turkey in the oven.
    6) “Oi, our ball,” shouted one of the kids. Scott looked at the lad then at the ball close to his feet.

    c) We use the when the object or person is mentioned for a second time.

    7) There was a kid across the street from me and he was cute. He wanted a guitar, so I got a guitar.
    8) But a boy needs a dog. A dog helps train you. If you don’t get a dog by a certain age …
    9) Fear can feed a ghost, so a ghost can grow in front of our eyes.


  2. Hi Scott

    Have used your table a few times in class but was always confused by the specificity category; I found the first paper I cited makes it clearer

    my attempt at your questions:

    for a1) the speaker intends to refers to a unique person who is noteworthy (from San Diego) and so specifies this person using a; it doesn’t require a +presupposition+ that this unique person exists?

    for b4) we rely on the speaker and hearer presuppose (using world knowledge) that a restaurant has waiters and usually only one waiter serves you and so the individual is unique?

    for c7) we can say that a guitar does not +presuppose+ a unique guitar and so we can use indefinite a?


    1. Spot on, Mura! Here’s how I answered those question in the Commentary:

      9 a) It is true that the indefinite article is used to talk in a generic way (e.g. Is there a doctor on the plane?), but, as show in the table in Task 8, the indefinite article can also have specific reference. In each of the examples 1 – 3, the noun is clearly specified (it is not any doctor, but a doctor from Santa Fe), even though the referent is not assumed to be part of the speaker-listener’s (or writer-reader’s) shared knowledge: that is to say the reference is indefinite but specific. So, the rule should be extended. ‘We use the indefinite article a/an when we are talking about a single countable noun in a general non-specific way, and in a specific way. In both cases, no shared knowledge is assumed’.

      b) In each of these examples the definite article the is used for the first mention, contradicting the rule. In (4) this is because the waiter and the table form part of a mental schema that is ‘triggered’ by the mention of restaurant. Similarly, in (5) , the turkey and the oven are presupposed by the mention of Christmas Day. In (6) the lad refers back to one of the kids, so is not a new ‘player’ in the story, even though he is named differently. So the rule might be better phrased: ‘A/an is used when we use a singular, countable noun to introduce new information’.

      c) The second ‘mention’ need not always refer back to the first. This is the case with generic reference, as in all the examples here. In (7) the first mention of guitar is generic ( = one of the things belonging to the class guitar) while the second is specific, and is the first mention of the specific guitar that the speaker bought. The next sentence might then continue: The kid played the guitar… In (8) and (9) are the references are generic. The rule could be improved thus: ‘We use the when a specific object or person is mentioned for a second time.’

      1. i must say getting a “spot on” comment from you is a pretty great feeling : )

        btw i tried using that joke you mention in your post (about in city X a person gets…) and i changed it to “In the city of Paris a person gets pushed in the Metro every 10 minutes. And she is getting mighty sick of it” (my attempt to make it less sexist); it went down like a lead balloon!

        amongst the difficulties my learners had was they were translating “a person” as “une personne” and so the “she” in the punchline made grammatical sense to them;
        they eventually got the joke after a few goes!


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