Monday, November 14, 2011

The evening/that evening

We just finished reading Salman Rushdie's Luka and the Fire of Life, and the kids and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But just as we were wrapping up, I stumbled in my reading, and that cool evening came out as the cool evening. Those of you who have read the book will know that a small stumble can take you out of one world and into another. In this case, it briefly took me into the world of syntax.

You see, even though, decontextualized, most of us don't see much difference between the evening and that evening, my slip actually made the entire sentence ungrammatical. I'll let you think about what context that might be true in and then explain after the jump.

The full sentence, which you can find on p. 216 of the hardcover, is "On the flat roof of the Khalifa house, that cool evening, a dinner table was set out under the stars." In this sentence, that cool evening is a noun phrase functioning as an adjunct. The interesting thing is that the choice of determiner for the NP makes a big difference. Some determiners lead to grammatical sentences, and others don't: that works but the doesn't; one works, but not a, unless you say many a cool evening. You can try out other options.

In truth, it's not simply up to the determiner. For instance, the can be made to work if you add an integrated relative as modifier of evening (i.e., the evening they arrived home, a dinner table was set out under the stars.)

I'd love to try and figure out whether there's some kind of underlying principle at work here, but I really have too much marking to do. I do hope that you have a smaller marking backlog than I do and that you might be able to enlighten me though.


Randy Alexander said...

It is up to the property of definiteness. The determinative that is definite, and other than this is the only available singular definite determinative.

The marks the NP indefinite, but when you modify the NP with they arrived home, the NP becomes definite.

Brett said...

I don't follow you, Randy. Why would the evening be indefinite?

Even if it were, I don't think it's the case that the issue is one of definiteness. As I said, one works, and that should be indefinite. I think any also works and that's indefnite.

Possessives should also be definite, but I think they still call for a leading preposition. For example, I think this would work: On the flat roof of the Khalifa house, on Luka's evening, a dinner table was set out under the stars, but not if the on were missing.

Q Higuchi said...

I think the issue is one of specificity, not definiteness - where specificity is about actual THINGS referred to. The use of _the_ does not guarantee specificity (i.e. may not have an actual, specific referent), but the use of _that_ pretty much does.

The Rushdie context in question calls for specificity: that (particular) N, the N that blah blah, one modified modified N, and so on.

The notion of specificity is not a syntactic one; hence the world you briefly entered, I believe, was larger than the world of syntax.

Brett said...

But if the evening were the subject, would it not be specific? If not, why not? If so, why does making it an adjunct make it non-specific?

Q Higuchi said...

Yes, it is true the subject position tends to invite a specific reading (being what is called the 'theme' position in the classic Hallidayan analysis).

The subject is salient. It is the first thing my sentence throws at you, so I had better make sure both of us know what it is. Then, the rest of the sentence gives you something new.

But then, it is just a discourse tendency; there is no way you can get a specific reading when, say, 'Nobody' is there in the subject. Even 'the evening' in 'The evening is particularly pleasant in summer' won't be specific - whereas 'that evening' in 'That evening was pleasant' will be.

Things are even easier to distinguish in a non-subject position, let alone an adjunct. 'It is nice and cool in the evening' vs 'It was nice and cool in that evening'.

Yeah, even as I type this, I get the funny feeling you must have had, hung between specific/non-specific reading on one hand, and definiteness on the other. This, my friend, was the door to the wonderful world of linguistic reverie.

Randy Alexander said...

I must have written that very late at night because of course "the", being the definite article, is all about definiteness. I must have been thinking "specific" but writing "definite" instead. (This sort of thing often happens to me (especially late at night), as I don't really think in words!)

Anyway Q Higuchi explained it more clearly.

Another way to describe the problem is that it is one of identifiability. "The" in that context does not make the evening identifiable. (This is the terminology used in CGEL; p370.)