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Referent & Determination

The Three Types of Referent

Referents (things that nouns refer to) can be classified into three categories:

1. Generic referents are things in general or classes of things.

A man should always wear nice clothes.

Depending on their type, they require “the”, “a” or no article at all.

2. Indeterminate referents are specific things, not general things or classes of things, whose specific identitiy is, in context, unknown or unimportant:

A man called me today.

Generally, we use the article “a” with indeterminate referents.

3. Determinate referents are specific things, like indeterminate referents, but things whose specific identitiy is, in context, known:

The man’s name was John

Generally, we use the article “the” with determinate references.

Each of these three categories has a number of subcategories, which are described in detail below. Before doing so, we need to discuss the idea of determination, the process by which we determine the referent of a noun, and how it applies to the different types of nouns.

Determination and the Referent of a Noun

Determination is the process we use to indicate the referent of a noun. Nouns are determined in a number of ways. One way is by context:

I stayed home and watched the television.

The context of “my home” determines the referent of the noun “television”– it is the television in my house. It is unthinkable that I would be refering to any other television. Thus, the noun is determined by the context.

Another way to determine a noun is by the information used to modify it:

The construction of the Eiffel Tower was difficult.

The information “of the Eiffel Tower” determines the referent of the noun “construction” – we are referring to a particular construction, that of the Eiffel Tower. Thus, the noun is determined by the information which modifies it.

In both examples, the referent of the noun is a specific thing with a known identity, so both referents are of the determinate type.

Determination and the Four Noun Types

The four types of nouns are proper nouns, count nouns, noncount nouns and two-way nouns. They are determined in different ways.

  • Proper nouns describe places (Paris), people (George Washington), countries (Norway) etc. Logically, they have only one referent (the noun refers to one thing only), and so do not require determination. Thus, proper nouns do not require an article.

  • Count nouns describe single countable things, which usually have a clear form or shape, or a clear beginning, middle and end. A count noun can be either a physical (tree, aeroplane) or a mental thing (process, remark). Because a count noun has multiple possible referents, it requires determination, and thus an article.

  • Noncount nouns describe things that cannot be counted or pointed to – in other words things with no clear shape or form (sand), abstract concepts (happiness, furniture), continuous processes (respiration, precipitation, pollution) or fields of study (economics). By themselves, they refer to a class of things rather than to any specific thing:

    Construction is an important industry

    “Construction” refers to the whole class of all construction, or to the concept of construction. Because a noncount noun has no specific referent, it does not require determination, and thus does not require an article.

  • Two-way nouns can be either noncount or count, depending on their referent in a particular sentence. For example:

    Blood was collected from the femoral artery. Plasma was separated from the blood by centrifugation. The plasma was stored at -20℃ until assay.

    The first noun ‘blood’ refers to the blood within the body, which is considered uncountable as it has no clear shape or form, and thus does not require determination. The second noun ‘blood’ refers to blood which was collected. Because it was collected, it now is countable and has a recognizable identity (ie. it is the blood that was collected). It therefore requires determination, using ‘the.’ The exact same process applies to determine the first and second nouns ‘plasma.’ Now let’s look at how we use articles to help determine the referent of a noun.

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