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The stylistic functions of article forms of nouns in English

Follow-Up Work

Define the type of individualisation represented by nouns with the definite article in the contexts below and comment on the role of attributes:


a) Many years ago I wrote a novel called The Moon and Sixpence. In that I took a famous painter, Paul Gauguin, and, using the novelist’s priviledge, devised a number of incidents to illustrate the character I had created on the suggestions afforded me by the scanty facts I knew about the French artist. In the present book I have attempted to do nothing of the kind. (S. Maugham)


b) He frowned, moving to inspect the picture more closely. It was an oil painting of a child in a field of buttercups. The field was in shadow, but, beyond the field, the sun shone on rocks and sea and the distant figures of two older girls. The illusionary effect of light and colour had caught his attention, not simply because it hummed with warmth but because the technique, thefactual rendering of the three-dimensional form, sprang at him with all the familiarity of a face remembered fromchildhood. (R. Pilcher)


c) Louise looked down at the floor with a serious look on her face. Suddenly she seemed to rouse herself.

‘I must go and put grandfather to bed.’

She went over to the old man, still hugging his empty glass, and leaning over him, tenderly cajoled him to come with her. (S. Maugham)


d) ‘Oh no. What does one do things for? Of course one has to work a certain amount to earn one’s living, but after that, only to satisfy the imagination. Tell me, when you saw those islands from the sea and your heart was filled with delight, and when you landed on them and found them a dreary jungle, which was the real island? (S. Maugham)


e) And so we always had the sense about Holly that she’d been foisted upon us; she wasn’t quite chosen; she was never a talking point, just Holly the workaday tabby: dismissible stand-in for the proper family cat. (F. Weldon)


f) ‘I feel like the grasshopper who sang all summer,’ she … revealed. ‘And now it’s the winter of my life and I haven’t stored up anything of my own.’ (H. Fielding)


So far the focus of our investigation has been the semiotic nature of the English articles, i.e. their ability to indicate various mental processes going on in the native speakers’ mind. However, not infrequently their semiotic functions can be complemented and reinforced metasemiotically, i.e. stylistically. This happens when the speaker/writer finds it relevant to emphasize the results of abstraction, classification and individualization. The stylistic functioning of the articles is especially common in verbal art, because it helps the author be more expressive and produce an impact on the reader.

It should be explained from the very start how to tell stylistically neutral, i.e. purely semiotic uses of the articles from their stylistic functioning. The criteria that can be laid down are as follows: the inconsistency of actual uses with dictionary data, on the one hand, and with the general rules regulating ordinary, everyday and stylistically neutral speech, on the other. Let us, by way of illustration, turn to the material that has been presented in § 4.

By the first criterion, the uses of such nouns as sun, moon, sky and sea with the definite article are stylistically neutral, i.e. common, standard, as they comply with the information provided by dictionaries, namely by their illustrative phraseology. On the contrary, the meaningful absence of the article with these nouns may be regarded as a stylistic mark, as the zero article here indicates not only generalization but emphasizes the immensity of the concepts in question. Similarly, the indefinite article before these nouns except sky stresses their classified meanings: it points to a visual perception the author or a character has of the sun or the sea, which is individual and temporary. Since such uses are not to be found in dictionaries, they are not typical of everyday, stylistically neutral speech. However, the data provided for sky prove that it is right to use it with the indefinite article (and a descriptive adjective) both in an ordinary conversation and in a weather forecast: a clear blue sky, a cloudless sky.

When it comes to the second criterion, it calls for a detailed analysis of actual uses contradicting the general rules established for ordinary, everyday, stylistically neutral speech. Their study may provide a plausible explanation for considerable article variation that could be encountered in fiction.

According to one of the fundamental rules mentioned at the beginning, the first reference to a person, or a thing requires the indefinite article, while all the uses of the noun in the ensuing parts of the text call for the definite article. It is quite natural, therefore, to start a narrative by introducing its characters, objects, and ideas using either the indefinite article (with singular nouns) or the zero article (with plural nouns):


One sunny afternoon in the autumn of the year 1861 a soldier lay in a clump of laurel by the side of a road in western Virginia. (A. Bierce)

It was a quiet, shady street, on a Sunday afternoon, and the houses, set back on long lawns, looked closed up, deserted. A few people were walking on the street, under the trees, and some children were playing in an empty lot next to a small apartment building. A car passed me, and just then a dog ran out into the street…(M. Schorer)

Then he turned away, searching his pockets until he found a crumpled pack of cigarettes. Livia studied him, wondering at his quick change in mood. (A. Thorne)


However, one may encounter a variety of contexts which might seem inconsistent with the rule. Compare:


Mr Martin bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded cigar store on Broadway. It was theatre time and seven or eight men were buying cigarettes. The clerk didn’t even glance at Mr Martin, who put the pack in his overcoat pocket and went out. If any of the staff at F @ S had seen him buy the cigarettes, they would have been astonished, for it was generally known that Mr Martin did not smoke, and never had. No one saw him. (J. Thurber)

As follows from the extract, the author makes no distinction between the first and the second uses of the noun pack: he finds it necessary to draw the reader’s attention to the object which is going to be significant in the story by taking it, from the very start, in the most concrete sense. This is a very special pack of cigarettes, which the main character is planning to use as a perfect alibi for the perfect crime he is going to commit.

A similar case of emphatic article deixis can be observed in the extract below. It again introduces common countable nouns as individualized concepts in structures that normally presuppose the indefinite article:


While Miss Austen was delineating the restricted life of a provincial lady, Scott, taking eight hundred years of Scots, English and French history as his province, was changing the whole course of the novel throughout Europe. Indeed, he was the European novelist, as Byron was the poet, and a later generation of novelists, Balzac, Dumas, and the Russians among them, were to look back to him as a father.


The definite articles given in italics are deliberately used to stress that both Byron and Scott were the greatest authors in the proper sense of the word.

The next extract demonstrates quite an unusual order of the articles’ use, which does not appear to be in line with the rule either:

She made the girls a doll’s house out of a tea-chest – anguished secret hours with plywood and saw and hammer and tacks and battered fingers. Wallpaper remnants, carpet offcuts and real pictures on the walls, in tiny photograph frames. She was the good mother. All right, so they didn’t have holidays in Spain or Greece, but they had a dolls’ house. They had a mother who fetched them from school, who helped them with their homework, who paid attention. (P. Lively)


On the one hand, the author has every reason to show the referent of the noun mother as a familiar one to the reader, for it is specified indirectly in the previous sentence. Such uses of the definite article are usually referred to as anaphoric ones. On the other hand, the definite article is used here most emphatically to stress the information introduced before. In contrast with the definite article, the indefinite article suggests that mothers are not always the same: some may be better than others. Naturally, the syntactic position of the noun in both cases matches the choice of the article. Were the article determination to change, it would call for a different syntactic pattern.

When a story is shown through the eyes of a character, the choice of the article may also represent a degree of his/her acquaintance with other characters. For example:


The trees thinned out. There was a clearing. And there in the clearing, leaned up against a rock reading a newspaper, with a sandwich in one hand and a can of Coke alongside, was a man. A long, rangy man in ubiquitous Aussie gear – shirt, shorts and knee socks. Myra prepared to walk tactfully past.

He looked up. ‘Hi, there,’ he said. ’Enjoying the trip?’

She put two and two together. Of course. The driver. (P. Lively)


The heroine of the story travels by coach around Sydney. When the coach stops off for a short stay, she walks out into the forest. There she meets a man who greets her cheerfully. It took her some time to identify him as the coach driver, and that is why her uncertainty about the man is expressed by the deliberately emphatic use of the indefinite article.

Let us consider more examples illustrating such common nouns in English as man and woman:


1) Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live. (The Bible)


2) ‘Bless you, George,’ said Miss Brimly, woman enough to believe him. (J. Le Carre)


3) Then Maxim had turned and glanced at me, caught my eye and smiled, and as I looked into his face I heard, falling into my head as clearly as drops of water falling on to stone, ‘That man is a murderer. He shot Rebecca. That is the man who killed his wife,’ and for one terrible moment, staring at Maxim, I saw a stranger, a man who had nothing to do with me, a man I did not know. (S. Hill)


The first example demonstrates the use of such nouns as man and woman as opposed abstract notions in formal speech, which differs from their common use in English. Interestingly, it is not the gender opposition that matters in this context. The generalized meaning of man is mankind at large, whereas that of woman is the female capacity to give birth. Here human beings, both men and women as mortals, are naturally opposed to the immortal God.

In the second case, which presents a dialogue between a man and a woman, the use of the noun woman as a generalized notion is meant to refer to some specific female quality, such as perspicacity or shrewdness, which may seem surprising to men. Indeed, the pattern, in which a noun appears to be replacing an adjective, is rather rare, which accounts for its rarely being taken up in grammar books.

Extract 3 is interesting in the sense that the uses of man are apparently contradictory to the instructions we are given in any grammar book, because the article determination is presented the other way round: the narrator starts by individualizing the referent quite emphatically, by means of the demonstrative pronoun and the definite article and concludes by classifying it with the help of the indefinite article. However, this seems to be stylistically relevant in the context, for the author’s intention is to stress the character’s gradual alienation from her husband. It was his past that brought about this drastic change in her attitude and made him appear a complete stranger to his wife. Thus, the indefinite article here is also semiotically relevant and points to comparison as a form of classification.

Similarly, on returning back to England after many years spent abroad, she finds it difficult to recognize once pleasant natural surroundings and, in particular the sea she knows too well from previous experience. Though her earlier days are far from being idyllic she feels nostalgic for them. And it is the description of the sea that suggests an irreconcilable difference between her quiet and happy recent past and the strained atmosphere of the present. The gloomy picture of the English grey, rough sea she paints on her arrival is meant to express her grave fear for a bleak, uncertain future. This presents a striking contrast to her recent experiences abroad, her life there being peaceful and quiet. The uses of the indefinite article with the noun sea, supported by a number of descriptive attributes are intended to show the character’s visual memories of the Atlantic in comparison to the English Channel. Thus, the use of the indefinite article after the noun has been introduced by the definite article might be viewed as both a grammatical and stylistic means of showing the character’s two periods of life in comparison and emphasizing a new way in which the character looked at her recent tranquil life, the happiness she was not conscious of and never valued:

As we set off for the church there had been skeins of mist weaving in and out of the trees, dissolved by the sun even as we watched, as the frost was melted by it, and I had instinctively looked over to where I knew that, miles away, the sea lay. When we had arrived at Dover on the previous evening it had already been dark, and coming across the channel the seahad simply been dull, grey and heaving about outside the ship’s windows, so that in a curious way, I had no real sense of its being the sea at all: and then the car had sped up away, and on to the long road.

In spite of all that it had meant to us for ill, all the harm it has caused, I had missed the slow drag of it up the beach, the hiss and suck over the pebbles, the crash of it, smacking down on to the shore of the cove – the fact that it was always there, sensed even through the densest fog that muffled every sound, and that whenever I wanted to I had been to go down and simply look at it, watch its movement, the play of its light upon it, see it change, the shadows shift, the surface roughen. I had often dreamed of it, dreamed that I had gone there at night when it was calm and still and gazed from some place above down upon the moonlit water. The sea we had lived close to and walked beside at times during our exile was a tideless, glittering sea, translucent, brilliantly blue, violet, emerald green, a seductive, painted sea, quiteunreal. (S. Hill)


Eventually, when the story reaches the climax, the noun sea is used with the zero article. This time, however, it is its figurative meaning that is being abstract: serious misfortune, suffering and danger of losing everything the heroine is exposed to. Interestingly, in the extract below sea is opposed to a rock, also used in the transferred sense, namely “help, support or foot-hold to gain”:

But to me he had been more, a rock when I had believed that all around me was swirling, raging sea and I about to drown in it. (S. Hill)


Another type of inconsistency that can be observed between the rules and actual language practice reveals itself in the use of the indefinite article as part of indirect anaphoric reference, where, as is well-known, the definite article or even possessive pronouns are generally expected, because the concepts meant by the speaker/writer are either unique or familiar, and there is no reason to count them. (See § 6)The examples of this are given below:


Dr Murray stayed where he was, an amiable man in his mid-thirties, with fresh complexion, light brown hair and a nice smile. He smiled as Rosie asked, ‘Are you staying?’

‘I’ve got a wife, expecting me home, but I’ll have a cup of coffee if there’s one going.’ (J. Donnelly)


And now, facing the building, he stood in the corner, formed by the two walls, one foot on the ledging of each, a hand on the shoulder-high indentation of each wall. His forehead was pressed directly into the corner against the cold bricks, and now he carefully lowered first one hand, then the other, perhaps a foot farther down, to the next indentation in the rows of bricks. (J. Finney)


The use of wife with the indefinite article by a husband when he means his wife can be considered inconsistent with situational reference, which would require the definite article and, naturally, a different syntactic pattern. The indefinite article contributes to a humorous effect the speaker seeks to produce: the joke helps the doctor accept his patient’s offer of coffee and hide his embarrassment, though strictly speaking, in such a way he may be informing her that he is married.

The second extract is quite serious and even dramatic. In danger of falling from the eleventh floor, the character is trying to get a sheet of paper which was drawn outside by the wind. He cannot lose the most important information in it because it can hardly be restored. The unusual use of the word hand (as well as foot) may be understood if the reader takes into consideration the character’s posture: he is crawling slowly along the narrow window ledge, using both hands and feet. The focus being his cautious movements, the description does not need any grammatical individualization of his limbs.

Besides, there may be found such instances of article variation in literature that may be classified as stylistic by both criteria: they contradict dictionary data as well as the general rules.

According to one of the basic rules, uncountable nouns, which are specially labelled in a dictionary cannot be used with the indefinite article. This means that the concepts they denote are intrinsically generalized and are not liable to classification. Any violation of this rather strict rule is generally regarded as a sign of illiteracy or negligence. However, such misuses are observed in literature and used by famous authors, such ”misuses” should be given scrupulous attention. The extract below coming from O. Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Grey” demonstrates the use of two nouns against the rule:


Music had stirred him like that. Music had troubled him many times. But music was not articulate. It was not a new world, but rather another chaos, that is created in us. Words! Mere words! How terrible they were. How clear, and vivid, and cruel!! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?


Here, in his impassioned inner monologue, the character refers to the creative power and beauty of words by comparing them to magic and music. The nouns under analysis are used metaphorically, on the one hand, and in the classified sense, on the other. It is the extraordinary, personal perception of both concepts that accounts for it: a magic here means “an insoluble, fascinating mystery”, while a music has the meaning of “a beautiful sound of words”. Syntactically, it is supported by descriptive attributes. The author does not mean music and magic as activities or processes but he brings together their inner qualities and results of their use: delight, excitement, unutterable pleasure which is surprising and mysterious. In other words, the author takes such liberties with grammar in pursuit of expressing a new, more specific meaning and creating a strong stylistic effect.

Such uses cannot be regarded as marks of the author’s individual style, for a similar case of classifying the concept of music in the form of comparison can be observed in a novel by W.S. Maugham:


Ah Kay lit himself a cigarette, and taking an odd, stringed instrument, something like a banjo, amused himself by playing softly. The thin notes straggled along the air, disconnected sounds they seemed, as if now and then you heard the beginning of a melody, it was not completed and your ear was deceived; it was a slow and plaintiff music, as incoherent as the varied scents of flowers, and it seemed to offer you but indications, a hint here and there, the suggestion of a rhythm, with which to create in your own soul a more subtle music than ears could hear.

Proper names may also acquire stylistic colouring by means of article determination when it does not conform to the generally accepted rules given in dictionaries and grammar books. Therefore, the selection criteria remain the same. Naturally, the proper names under consideration will be those which in ordinary, stylistically neutral speech are used without any article. Once the concepts they denote are classified (by means of the indefinite article) or further individualized (by the definite article), they are no longer neutral: they are supposed to attract the reader’s attention. Thus, for example, the definite article may be used with proper names in the singular with a limiting attribute to lay a special emphasis on a person’s mood or some permanent feature of character:

The startled Jolyon set down his barley water…(J. Galsworthy)

I was about to revert to the probability of a union between Mr. Rochester and the beautiful Blanche…(Ch. Bronte)

‘I wonder, will Lydia be at Rowsley?’ said Kitty, who was cheered by this reminder that a sister closer to her in temperament than the wise and sweet Jane, or the clever, thoughtful Lizzy, could be was to come into the vicinity. (E. Tennant)

“In the strange anomaly of my existence, feelings with me, had never been of the heart, and may passions always were of the mind… and I had seen her – not as the living and breathing Berenice, but as the Berenice of a dream… (E. Poe)


The limiting attribute may take the form of a clause or a participial construction:


His thoughts, which were largely on Carrie, were like the chronic physical discomfort of flu or some gastric complaint. Indeed he was, he decided, ill – emotionally ill. But the Carrie of whomhe thought, detached from any known setting, was unreachable, removed by distance as finally asthough by time. (P. Lively)


However different limiting attributes might be, they invariably support individualization in its most emphatic form. On the other hand, in the absence of any attribute the use of proper names with the definite article may be found no less emphatic:


Once upon a time, we must believe, there was a rule, a discipline, which controlled the great republic of readers in a way which is now unknown. This is not to say that the great criticthe Dryden, the Johnson, the Coleridge, the Arnold – was an impeccable judge of contemporary work, whose verdicts stamped the book indelibly and saved the reader the trouble of reckoning the value for himself. The mistakes of these great men about their own contemporaries are too notorious to be worth recording. But the mere fact of their existence had a centralizing influence. (V. Woolf)


Here the proper names are adduced as an added illustration to the noun critic used in the generic sense, i.e. meant to identify the whole class of critics in the proper sense of the word and thus place them in a class by itself.


On a par with the above uses demonstrating the article determination of proper names with reference to people bearing them, there are altogether different, more specific cases. In particular, one’s surname can be used metaphorically to indicate some other person who may share one’s qualities, the idea being to point to some similarity. Since such uses suggest a comparison, i.e. classification, proper names are determined by the indefinite article:


Reviewers we have but no critic; a million competent but no judge… Nowhere shall we find the downright vigour of a Dryden, or Keats with his fine and natural bearing, his profound insight and sanity, or Flaubert and the tremendous power of his fanaticism…(V. Woolf)


‘I don’t pretend to be a great painter,’ he said. ‘I’m not a Michael Angelo, no, but I have something.’ (S. Maugham)

Swithin smiled and nodding at Bossiney said “Why, you are quite a Monte Cristo”. (J. Galsworthy)


The above extracts demonstrate the use of a specific stylistic device, namelyantonomasia. Here it is used as a trope and, obviously adds to the artistic value of the text. [22]


When it comes to one’s sameness or exact likeness to another person in qualities, antonomasia manifests itself in proper names used with the definite article. For example:


He was the Byron of his age.

Virgil was the Homer of the Romans.

Elliot, the costume too large now for his emaciated frame, looked like a chorus man in an early opera of Verdi’s. The sad Don Quixote of a worthless purpose. (S. Maugham)


Other types of proper names are also involved in article variation, often for the sake of emphasis or comparison. For example:


‘…They like to think that Italy is like my pictures. That’s what they expect. That’s what I expected Italy to be before I came here.’

And I think that was the vision that had remained with him always, dazzling his eyes so that he could not see the truth; and notwithstanding the brutality of fact, he continued to see with the eyes of the spirit an Italy of romantic brigands and picturesque ruins. It was an ideal that he painted – a poor one, common, and shop-soiled, but still was an ideal; and it gave his character a definite charm. (S. Maugham)


Everything seemed to lack love, lack care. We had struggled to pick over the meal and had said very little once we had come upstairs, only murmured this and that, nothing of consequence, remarks about the journey, the dreary tedious miles across a sad, grey Europe. (S. Hill)


The above illustrations present the unusual uses of the names normally taking the zero article. The forms with the indefinite articles point to the classification of referents in the form of comparison, and as a result of it a change in the meaning of the nouns and their lexical-grammatical status: the proper names in question are reclassified into common names. The focus is no longer on the concrete, traditional concepts they convey but some divergent views on them. Thus, the form of the roper mane with the indefinite article here turns out to be a specific means of expressing a favourable or critical attitude towards them.

To sum up, the above instances ought not to be considered in breach of the rules which never stop operating in the language. On the contrary, they should be given a wider interpretation: by choosing a particular form of the article, the user points to either a certain degree of familiarity with the thing-meant (a person or persons, an object or objects, idea or ideas) or a lack of it. Although normally, in everyday contexts, people tend to classify things first (by the form with the indefinite article) and later identify them (by the form with the definite article), it is quite probable, that the process should sometimes be reverse. In fiction, this results in emphatic or stylistically marked uses of the article forms of nouns.

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