Classified and Identified – A pedagogical grammar for article use

1990 was a good year for music  – Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Primal Scream, James, House of Love. 1990 was also good for what is, in my humble opinion, one of the best pedagogical grammars for article instruction – Peter Master’s paper Teaching the English Articles as a Binary System published in TESOL Quarterly.

It is a pedagogical grammar because it simplifies the four main characteristics of articles definiteness[+/-definite], specificity[+/-specific], countability[+/-count] and number[+/-singular] into two bigger concepts namely classification and identification. So 0 or no article and a/an is used to classify and the used to identify.

As discussed in a previous post the two main features of articles are definiteness and specificity. So the four possible combinations are:
1a. [-definite][+specific] A tick entered my ear.
b. [-definite][-specific] A tick carries disease.
c. [+definite][+specific] The computer is down today.
d. [+definite][-specific] The computer is changing our lives

Master’s binary scheme emphasizes 1b and 1c at the expense of 1a and 1d. That is +identification feature describes [+definite][+specific] and -identification or classification describes [-definite] [-specific].

The effect of ignoring specificity in indefinite uses is saying all uses of no article or a/an is essentially generic. Whether we mean a specific, actual tick as in 1a or a generic one as in 1b we still classify that tick when using the article a. Paraphrased as something that can be classified as a tick entered my ear/carries disease.

The effect of ignoring specificity in definite uses is saying that all uses of the are essentially specific. Although the difference between 1c and 1d is significant we can rely on the fact that generic the is relatively infrequent. Further some argue that generic the is not very different from specific the. The identified quality of a generic noun like the computer is held onto. We do not classify one-of-a-group for computer until we interpret the rest of the sentence. And when we understand the noun as requiring a generic interpretation we seem to see such interpretation through the individual. So generic the is considered as “the identification of a class

Master goes on to give some advice of teaching classification. For instance,  have students sort a pile of objects into categories – These are books/These are pencils/This is paper/This is a pen.

For identification have students identify members in the categories – This is the blue book/These are the red pencils/This is the A4 paper/This is the new pen.

In addition teach them that proper nouns, possessive determiners (my, her), possessive ’s (the girl’s), demonstratives (this, that) and some other determiners (e.g. either/neither,each, every) —> identify; while no article , a/an, and determiners such as some/any one —> classify.
Countability only needs to be considered for classified nouns as identified nouns require the whether they be countable or not.

Master then provides the following chart:

After the concepts of classification and identification are presented and practiced details of use can be shown as in the table below:

I won’t repeat what Master says as I have already done too much of that. Once you read Master’s paper the two figures can be used as a memory aid.

Master says that discourse effects of article use (e.g. given/theme and new/rheme) can be matched onto his binary schema i.e. given info is identification and new info is classification. And that for many noun phrase uses of article such as ranking adjectives, world shared knowledge, descriptive vs partitive of phrases, intentional vagueness, proper nouns and idiomatic phrases there is no need to go beyond the sentence unless first/subsequent mention is a involved.

Thanks for reading.


Master, P. (1990). Teaching the English articles as a binary system. Tesol Quarterly, 24(3), 461-478.

14 thoughts on “Classified and Identified – A pedagogical grammar for article use

  1. Very interesting follow-up of your first attempt to sort out this conundrum. I see the appeal of the “classification / identification” distinction, but I wonder how helpful it is to “simplify” in this way. Won’t it all unravel when it bumps up against counter examples? What’s your experience of following Master’s advice in class?

    And you have to worry a bit about someone who uses a tick as his illustrative example, don’t you! 🙂

    1. hi Geoff
      not had a chance to use this in class; last time articles came up relied on my previous post i.e. tried to use definitions of definiteness & specificity to answer a student question;
      Master does point out the weakness of pedagogical grammars but i agree with him the benefit for most students is greater;
      read something on lexical bundles use of articles & some other UG based stuff may write another post sometime

  2. I was very impressed by the article. First time I’ve come across something I could have used in class. I did use something similar in class and found students were happy to work on classification games but the diagram left most of them cold.

    I don’t think there are any exceptions but then I had 2 extra groups:
    1) Names of people and things may have articles or not. By their nature they are not rule governed. You can call people and things whatever you want. Puritans sometimes named their children with complete sentences: “Walk in the fear of the Lord”.
    2) Figure of speech, more exactly of synecdoche, for example “The tick carries disease”. Figures of speech are often not governed by grammatical rules either.

    Maybe I was cheating but students accepted these exceptions and found them easy to recognise.

    When making a general statement, do you see a difference in meaning between these:
    1) Ticks have 8 legs.
    2) A tick has 8 legs.
    3) The tick has 8 legs.

    I changed the example because “A tick carries disease” seems weird to me. Maybe because its not universally true. They carry disease to most mammals but not to cats.

    Now I should work out how to fuse Master’s analysis with my own.

    Thanks a lot for this, Mura.

    Here’s my analysis:
    It’s safe for you to read Geoff, no ticks.

    1. hi Glenys
      glad you find paper useful;
      Master agrees with your exceptions to his schema;
      for the general statements you can have a read of [], a bit heavy going but good stuff in there

      basically there is a difference in general statements at the Noun Phrase level and sentence level e.g.
      1. A tick scratches heads
      2. A tick is scratching heads

      1a is a characterising sentence talking about ticks in general; 1b is a particular sentence and talking about a tick that is actually existing;
      in both cases the noun phrase “a tick” has its usual indefinite feature but it is not controlling the generic meaning

      i think i am all ticked out

    2. I really like your analysis, Glenys; easier and more complete for not being binary, IMHO (tho I don’t mean to knock Master’s clever binary idea).

  3. Hi Mura,
    I was tickled by your last sentence 😄
    ‘Fraid I’m too cheapskate to cough up €35 for the article – ‘specially if it’s heavy going.

    By the way, in my dialect (?idolect) the Present Continuous can’t be used the way you use it: “a tick that is actually existing” “it is not controlling the general meaning” & even a giant tick can’t bite several heads at once.

    Every morning I wake up to find English has changed without asking my permission first.

  4. So as promised I gave it a whirl. Context was a 1-to-1 with a Russian academic (heritage studies) who teaches in English and makes lots of article errors. We started with a presentation of Master’s chart via a couple of examples demonstrating classification v. identification. L was then given more contextualised examples to match up to chart, having to explain in each case why it was classification or identification, but with the caveat that if it was too difficult to explain, we’d create some other lines on the chart.

    We had to add two lines:

    – 1 for proper nouns which, as Glenys mentions, don’t follow strict rules and tend to go by convention.
    – a second for “institutions” like home, work, school, university etc. It was too hard to force these into the “noncount classified” category with 0 article.. . They’re a bit undecidable really. Whether they identify a place (“I’ll see you at school”) or classify (“She starts school when she’s 6”) seems to depend on context; additionally of course they become unequivocably identified when we add “the” (It’s opposite the school”)

    Finally she was given an authentic text on her subject with all articles gapped (including the zero ones). It was a homework task so we’ll see.

    I’m fairly convinced that this will be one of those cases of perhaps sharpening her declarative knowledge with only limited uptake, but it was one of the more focused and more easily processed of the lessons I’ve done on this area … maybe that will help.

    Finally I’m really not sure I understand how generic “the” fits in, re: ‘some argue that generic the is not very different from specific the. The identified quality of a generic noun like the computer is held onto. We do not classify one-of-a-group for computer until we interpret the rest of the sentence. And when we understand the noun as requiring a generic interpretation we seem to see such interpretation through the individual. So generic the is considered as “the identification of a class”’

    … well if I don’t get it I wasn’t about to try to give it to my student, and we just regarded generic “the” as an infrequent exception. Still, I would like to have a better handle on this; why, for example, it’s OK to say “The dog is a faithful animal” but weird to say “The dog likes chasing cats” (rather than “Dogs like chasing cats”).

  5. I found these comments at

    One can roughly equate the three generic noun phrase constructions with three different functions. Each refers to some species (of plant, animal, thing, person, cathedral, or whatever; not just biological species), but there are several ways of doing this:

    1.The Definite Generic refers to the Prototype of a species, roughly the image we associate with tiger. The tiger, as a prototype, has all the properties of anything we would call a tiger, except that it doesn’t exist in an individual physical sense, like all real tigers do. This is a very abstract concept, and its use signals that the speaker is theorizing.
    The tiger is big means the speaker believes that “bigness”, in some comparative context, is a characteristic property of tigers, that we should expect this to be true of any tiger.

    2.The Plural Generic refers to the Norm of a species over its individuals, as perceived, of course, by the speaker, who is unlikely to have conducted tiger surveys, so the “statistics” here are very vague and impressional.
    Tigers are big means the speaker believes that, on the average, any tiger is likely to be “big”. This doesn’t mean all tigers are big, though that’s close. This is potentially a less abstract concept, since its use implies a generalization based on experience of several individuals.

    3.The Indefinite Generic refers to the Definition of a species, that is, those properties that are absolutely necessary for anything to be a member. It doesn’t work as the subject of any predicate that isn’t definitional. But with a definitional property, it’s certainly true for any member.
    And that’s one of the reasons why your sentence is ungrammatical. If one says
    *A tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.
    one is saying that being in danger of becoming extinct is one of the defining characteristics of tigerhood, which isn’t true, after all. Tigers would still be tigers if they weren’t endangered.

    A similar situation is true in the following sentences:

    ◦The madrigal is polyphonic. (being polyphonic is characteristic of madrigrals)
    ◦Madrigals are polyphonic. (being polyphonic is normal for madrigrals)
    ◦A madrigal is polyphonic. (being polyphonic is required for madrigrals)
    as opposed to

    ◦The madrigal is popular. (being popular is characteristic of madrigrals)
    ◦Madrigals are popular. (being popular is normal for madrigrals)
    ◦*A madrigal is popular. (being popular is required for madrigrals)
    … and of course this last conclusion is wrong, producing the star. One other reason why the Indefinite Generic a tiger is ungrammatical with the predicate become extinct is that extinction can only happen to a species, and it means that every member of the species is dead. Now this can use the Definite Generic because it is characteristic of the species; it can use a Plural Generic because we’re speaking of tigers in aggregate.
    But it can’t use an Indefinite Generic, for much the same reason you wouldn’t say
    *Any tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.
    That is, becoming extinct isn’t something that happens to individual tigers.
    There are lots more strange facts about generic constructions; indeed, I wrote a dissertation about them long ago. But I hope this helps some.

    – John Lawler Department of Linguistics and Residential College University of Michigan

  6. I forgot to ask Neil this (if you don’t mind, Mura): What did your student make of it? Did she seem to think it was helpful? So difficult to know what effect such explanations have – specially long term.

  7. hey all
    many thanks Neil for your report and cheers Geoff for that link; all these questions need to be explored in another post! will get on it when i can

  8. Thanks both. Geoff, that breakdown of the generic forms actually makes sense!

    To answer Geoff’s question, the course I’m doing with her is largely communicative but we occasionally agree on grammatical areas (like articles) that need specific focus. I’m not convinced it’ll have much impact but she liked the relative clarity of it and it’ll be something we can refer back to when correcting her spoken and written output.

Penny for your thoughts

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