Pragmatics and the social life of the English definite article

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English Language and Literature

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Eckert (2008) rightly points out that context, variation, and indexicality are inextricably bound. This work—an in-depth case study of the social significance of the English definite article— presents a picture whereby semantic meaning is part of that same web of interrelations. The primary empirical claim of this work is that using the with a plural NP (e.g. the Americans) to talk about all or typical members of a group of individuals tends to depict that group as a monolith separate from the speaker, and to an extent that using a bare plural (e.g. Americans) does not. I present two variationist, corpus-based studies that provide clear evidence of this effect. I then provide a principled account of the effect, building on the insights of sociolinguistic and pragmatic research and extending their collective reach. As I show, the effect is largely rooted in crucial differences between the semantic meaning of the-plurals and that of related alternative expressions. As with a broad range of associated phenomena, the exact interpretation of a particular the-plural on a given occasion of use depends importantly upon its indexical character, the beliefs of the speech participants, and myriad other contextual factors, but is nonetheless constrained in a principled way.

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