Author Topic: Using sg to refer to pl  (Read 5865 times)

Offline zaba

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Using sg to refer to pl
« on: November 17, 2014, 12:41:32 AM »
In English, it seems that there's a generic interpretation for "The X" that there isn't for "A X"

For example:

"The sound of dogs playing" could refer to many different sounds, all categorized as members of "dogs playing"

whereas:

"A sound of dogs playing" could only refer to some particular sound.

Is there a name for this kind of interpretation?

Offline Daniel

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Re: Using sg to refer to pl
« Reply #1 on: November 17, 2014, 12:52:28 AM »
Unspecified number?
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Offline zaba

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Re: Using sg to refer to pl
« Reply #2 on: November 17, 2014, 02:02:51 AM »
Is it not strange that the definitive 'the' is used to express the concept of 'unspecified number/amount'? I'd expect 'a/an' to do that job.

Offline Daniel

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Re: Using sg to refer to pl
« Reply #3 on: November 17, 2014, 02:33:21 AM »
Depends in what you mean by "strange". I rarely find things to be surprising any more.
As for this particular case, it makes sense to me: the is something unique, in contrast to other categories. The lion is a mighty beast. The goldfish is not. Obviously this is a particular usage with a specific interpretation. But the extension from single-example-the is not hard to imagine. (A type-token substitution.)



Note that in general English is fairly restrictive. In many languages like Turkish and Quechua, plural expression is optional, used only when contrastive. "I read book" means "at least one" and might be used where in English we would use a plural.
« Last Edit: November 17, 2014, 02:39:44 AM by djr33 »
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Offline MalFet

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Re: Using sg to refer to pl
« Reply #4 on: November 17, 2014, 03:08:38 AM »
Is it not strange that the definitive 'the' is used to express the concept of 'unspecified number/amount'? I'd expect 'a/an' to do that job.

Interesting question. I think your best bet is to think about this in terms of token/type distinctions. "The" seems to do double duty in English, providing both definite reference to individuals but also reference to the class. "A", on the other hand, seems to always be non-definite in a conventional sense. "There is an otter under my bed." versus "The otter is a majestic creature".

I rarely find things to be surprising any more.

That's the most horribly sad thing I've heard all day.

Offline freknu

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Re: Using sg to refer to pl
« Reply #5 on: November 17, 2014, 03:34:39 AM »
Hm... I'm having a little trouble following...

The sound of dogs figthing — the collective sound-Ø (singular, a single sound)
The sounds of dogs figthing — the individual sound-s (plural, many sounds)
A sound of dogs fighthing — a single specific sound from all possible sounds
Many sounds of dogs figthing — several specific sounds from all possible sounds

"The" is definite in both cases.

Offline Daniel

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Re: Using sg to refer to pl
« Reply #6 on: November 17, 2014, 09:48:32 AM »
Quote from: MalFet
That's the most horribly sad thing I've heard all day.
Oh? I really didn't mean it to be. What I'm saying is that most surprise comes from an English bias (or whatever languages we're familiar with). Languages do lots of interesting things. They're still interesting. But I'm no longer surprised that they're interesting :)
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