In linguistics, definiteness is a semantic feature of noun phrases that distinguishes between referents or senses that are identifiable in a given context (definite noun phrases) and those that are not (indefinite noun phrases). The prototypical definite noun phrase picks out a unique, familiar, specific referent such as the sun or Australia, as opposed to indefinite examples like an idea or some fish.

There is considerable variation in the expression of definiteness across languages, and some languages such as Japanese do not generally mark it, so the same expression can be definite in some contexts and indefinite in others. In other languages, such as English, it is usually marked by the selection of determiner (e.g., the vs. a). Still other languages, such as Danish, mark definiteness morphologically by changing the noun itself (e.g. Danish en mand (a man), manden (the man)).

Definiteness as a grammatical category

There are times when a grammatically marked definite NP is not in fact identifiable. For example, the polar bear's habitat is the arctic does not refer to a unique, familiar, specific bear, in an example of a form-meaning mismatch. "The theoretical distinction between grammatical definiteness and cognitive identifiability has the advantage of enabling us to distinguish between a discrete (grammatical) and a non-discrete (cognitive) category."[1][p. 84][a]

Use in different languages


In English, definiteness is usually marked by the selection of determiner. Certain determiners, such as a, an, many, and some, along with numbers (e.g., four items), typically mark a noun phrase as indefinite. Others, including the, that, and genitive noun phrases (e.g., my brother) typically mark the noun phrase as definite.[2]

A number of tests have been proposed to distinguish definite from indefinite noun phrases. "Each has a foundation in intuition, as well as some degree of grammatical effect. However, it is not clear that any of them corresponds cleanly to formal categories."[3]

  1. If a noun phrase can be put into an existential clause such as there is noun phrase at the door (e.g., there are two wolves at the door), it is likely indefinite.[4]
  2. "The concept of identifiability expressed by the definite article is best understood in terms of pre-empting a question with which?"[2]

Other languages

Germanic, Romance, Celtic, Semitic, and auxiliary languages generally have a definite article, often preposed but in some cases postposed. Many other languages do not. Some examples are Chinese, Japanese, Finnish, and modern Slavic languages except Bulgarian and Macedonian. When necessary, languages of this kind may indicate definiteness by other means such as demonstratives.[5][page needed]

It is common for definiteness to interact with the marking of case in certain syntactic contexts. In many languages, a direct object receives distinctive marking only if it is definite. For example, in Turkish, the direct object in the sentence adamı gördüm (meaning "I saw the man") is marked with the suffix (indicating definiteness).[5]: 204  The absence of the suffix on a direct object in Turkish means that it is indefinite and, in the absence of the indefinite article bir, no longer explicitly singular: adam gördüm ("I saw a man/I saw men").

In Serbo-Croatian, in the Baltic languages Latvian and Lithuanian, and, to a lesser extent in Slovene, definiteness can be expressed morphologically on prenominal adjectives.[8] The short form of the adjective is interpreted as indefinite, while the long form is definite or specific:

In some languages, the definiteness of the object affects the transitivity of the verb. In the absence of peculiar specificity marking, it also tends to affect the telicity of mono-occasional predications.

In some Scandinavian languages, such as Swedish, definite nouns inflect with a dedicated set of suffixes. This is known in Swedish as the grammatical category of species.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Lambrecht, Knud (1996). Information structure and sentence form : topic, focus, and the mental representations of discourse referents. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-316-03949-6. OCLC 1100677082.
  2. ^ a b Huddleston; Pullum (2002). Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ Abbott, Barbara (2006). "Definiteness and indefiniteness". In Horn, R. L.; Ward, G (eds.). The handbook of pragmatics. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. pp. 122–149. doi:10.1002/9780470756959. ISBN 9780470756959.
  4. ^ Milsark, Gary (1977). "Toward an explanation of certain peculiarities of the existential construction in English". Linguistic Analysis. 3: 1–29.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Lyons, Christopher (1999). Definiteness. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-36835-3.
  6. ^ Wagner, Jennifer. "Danish Articles and Demonstratives". Archived from the original on Oct 24, 2020. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
  7. ^ "Japanese/Grammar". Wikibooks. Archived from the original on Oct 26, 2020. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
  8. ^ Aljović, Nadira (2002). "Long adjectival inflection and specificity in Serbo-Croatian". Recherches Linguistiques de Vincennes. 31 (31): 27–42. doi:10.4000/rlv.351. Retrieved 2007-03-30.


Further reading