Article use: from cognitive salience to discourse differentiation

The following borrows heavily from the original paper.

Elena Gorokhova in 1995 reports on a developmental stage description of article use by Spanish L1 learners of English. She follows a description of final state article use that was formulated by William Diver – the founder of Columbia School linguistics which is a sign-based functional linguistics account. A sign is a pairing of a signal with its meaning.

In Diver’s account the/a signals a need to differentiate referents in a piece of discourse while the Ø zero article signals no such need. The signal is used when there is enough information available to differentiate referents and a/an signal is used when there is insufficient information available to differentiate referents. For the Ø zero article four communicative reasons are given:

a) referent is unimportant to message as message is about an associated activity.
He went to Ø bed early (went to sleep on whatever bed)

b) referent important but no chance of confusion
He went Ø home (his home)
He went to Ø school (his school)

c) only one possible referent
Ø Einstein died in Ø Princeton

d) no differentiation among instances needed
Ø Water boils at 100C (any and all water)

The above is represented in the figure below:

Gorokhova then postulates  4 stages based on her longitudinal data which culminate in the Standard English state shown above.

In the first stage learners only have the which is used with cognitively more salient referents. Hence important and visible referents are signaled by the:

In stage II the signal a is acquired. The now in addition to signaling importance is used to mark large size of a visible referent. A signals visible referents smaller in size and which are less important. Note that in stages I and II the and a are used very differently to the end state standard English. In stages I and II they are used to show degrees of attention whilst in the end state standard English they are used to show degrees of differentiation of referents in discourse:

Stage III learners begin to pay attention to the larger discourse although their linguistic value is still based on cognitive salience. Stage III is a transitional stage:

In stage IV discourse plays a significant role in the use of articles. Learners choose the and a on differentiation of referents. Context is used from restrictive clause or noun phrases or successive mention of the same referent. The is also used with familiar referents such as bank, school etc:

In stage V students acquire use of the Ø zero article. Here also “frame anaphora” is evoked by the use of the e.g. Someone is driving and there are people in the back seat. The speaker relies on shared non-linguistic knowledge (driving is usually done in a car which usually has seats) with the hearer. This stage is hard to acquire – of the seventy learners in Gorokhova’s study only two showed Stage V article usage.

Although this study suggests a particular order of acquisition – The > A > Ø Zero article, there is no consensus in the literature. Some studies support this order, others show A > The > Ø Zero article, others show Ø Zero article > The > A.

What is heavily implied though is that due to the discourse effects on article use, articles should not be taught in isolated sentences but with a piece of discourse in addition to background information about the speaker and hearer.

I recently drew Figure 1 and Master’s figure of Classification vs Identification with a student. She preferred Master’s figure as she had trouble understanding the word differentiation. It should be noted in this case of focus on form and meaning there was only a cursory look in response to her question about using articles.

Thanks for reading and do check the Columbia School of linguistics as I believe this approach has a lot of potential for use in class. And do also check some other thoughts on article use here:

  1. Articles and collocational effects
  2. Classified and Identified – A pedagogical grammar for article use
  3. A, an, the, definiteness and specificity


Gorokhova, E. (1995). Acquisition of English articles by native speakers of Spanish. In Contini-Morava, E. & Goldberg, B. S. (Eds.) Meaning as explanation: Advances in linguistic sign theory,  441-452. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

11 thoughts on “Article use: from cognitive salience to discourse differentiation

  1. Cheers for this, Mura.

    I hate teaching articles explicitly but it needs doing sometimes.

    I think I read something a while back about ‘a(n)’ being less salient than ‘the’, maybe by O’Grady but I could be very wrong, which would also explain the disagreements in some of the literature. If we think of the acquisition of aural language, more readily perceived words will be more readily acquired (Best, 1995?), rather than ignored. ‘A(n)’ is a problem because of its weak form being schwa and it often being elided or assimilated, certainly more than ‘the’ would be. ‘The’ is likely to be more of a problem for L1 speakers of languages without /ð/, who might not readily perceive that phoneme.

    1. Hi Marc
      Thanks and thanks for commenting. Yes detecting articles in the sound stream is definitely a factor; any more details on ref?
      There is one view that sees articles as a process of grammaticalization – as a change from a “lexical” to a “grammar” use of a linguistic item (The Myth of the Zero Article)

  2. Thanks Mura, I enjoy your articles articles …

    1) Do any of these studies consider articles as part of determiners more generally, or is that too messy to test?
    2) “Although this study suggests a particular order of acquisition – The > A > Ø Zero article, there is no consensus in the literature. Some studies support this order, others show A > The > Ø Zero article, others show Ø Zero article > The > A.”

    I wonder here if L1 exerts a particular influence on articles development. Certainly for the Spanish Ls, examples like “I don’t like the racism” are direct transfer. As you note, and from my experience teaching Spanish speakers, few Ls reach ability to zero-article big important general concepts which in Spanish are e.g. “el amor”, “la sociedad” (the love, the society), etc.

    1. Hi Neil
      thanks for commenting!

      1) not sure, can’t remember reading about this but am sure some have looked at this
      2) yes as far as i can remember L1 effects have been studied

      although i need to find a way to explain “differentiation” to students(!) i like this term and find it preferable to falling back on the vaguer term “general”

      1. Yes but there’s lots of nouns that don’t seem to need differentiated but still carry an article. “I went in the bar and sat down at a table” – surely this is “sat down at whatever table” but still it requires “a”. Similarly, not all proper nouns fit the schema.

      2. i am going to write a bit more about Columbia School (CS) linguistics but for now important to keep in mind that Diver in attempting to explain (rather than describe as in rules or discourse/corpus frequencies) form-meaning connections emphasises that meaning is very +sparse+; i.e. the +meaning+ of “differentiation” of articles only suggests what the +message+ might be; the message is not “composed” of individual meaning; it is rather an interpretive process that uses a wide variety of sources of information;
        that is why CS advocates using larger pieces of discourse rather than single sentences.
        hope this makes some sort of sense : )

Penny for your thoughts

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