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:

From Master, 2002

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.
Master, P. (2002). Information structure and English article pedagogy. System, 30(3), 331-348.

Clinton conditional conundrum

This is a short post that sparked my curiosity about conditionals. Take it as you want.

Recently a story has emerged about Hilary Clinton. The popular quote is this:

And if we were going to push for an election, then we should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win.


A more extended quote is this:

First, I don’t think we should have pushed for an election in the Palestinian territories. I think that was a big mistake. If we were going to push for an election, we should have made sure we did something to determine who was going to win instead of signing off on an electoral system that advantaged Hamas.


According to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, CGEL (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002) there are two kinds of conditionals – open and remote. Open refers to something that may or may not be the case, remote refers to something being unlikely or remote.

Remote conditionals must have a modal auxiliary in the main clause (e.g. should) and a modal past form were in the if part.

For the first Clinton quote we have these two features hence this is a remote conditional.

If we look at the fuller quote we can argue that Clinton wanted to emphasize to this particular audience that the Bush administration at that time made a mistake. She uses the conditional to highlight this by imagining an alternative world where she was involved in making the decision. In this world she would have done something more than “signing off on an electoral system that advantaged Hamas” and “did something to determine who was going to win”.

Now as to whether this means she would have rigged the election is up for anyone to speculate and whether that applies to election rigging in the US is similarly up for grabs.

I’d be very interested to get your opinion, thanks for reading.


Huddleston, R., & Pullum, G. K. (2002). The Cambridge grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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 – Retrieved April 2, 2016, from