The proper use of articles for various types of nouns


MANY fluent speakers or writers of English, whether it’s their first or second language, get by quite nicely without explicitly learning its grammar rules and usage conventions. They therefore often get stumped when asked to explain even the most basic mechanisms that make the language work properly.

I was reminded of this state of affairs when an English teacher in Iran, Farhad H., recently sent me this e-mail: “Please look at the following sentence that I read in Reader’s Digest: ‘I know that it is possible to lose part of your humanity in order to survive. But I also know that the spark of human dignity is never completely extinguished.’

“My question is: Why did the writer use the article ‘the’ before the word ‘spark’? And why didn’t the writer use the article ‘the’ before ‘human dignity’? Please explain.”
My reply to Farhad H.:

Your grammar question is such a tough one that I am tempted to take the easy way out, which is to identify the noun phrase in question—“the spark of human dignity”—as a figure of speech like, say, “the milk of human kindness” that Shakespeare used in Macbeth. You see, these two parallel noun phrases each have a nonliteral component (“spark” and “milk”) and a literal component (“human dignity” and “human kindness”) that, working together, make them metaphors.

A metaphor is, of course, a figure of speech that departs from the literal meaning of words to achieve a special effect or different sense, making it complicated to figure out the grammatical mechanisms that bind its component words. This complication thus makes it expedient to forego parsing the metaphorical phrase and to just focus on what it means as a composite term.

Even with that caveat, however, I’ll now make an effort to parse “the spark of human dignity” to explain why it used the article “the” for “spark” and not for “human dignity.”

The noun “spark” is used in that noun phrase in the sense of “something that sets off a sudden force.” It’s a concrete noun (as opposed to an abstract noun) because it names something recognizable through the senses, and it’s a countable noun (as opposed to an uncountable noun) because it could take either a singular form (“spark”) or a plural form (“sparks”).

In the noun phrase “the spark of human dignity,” the definite article “the” modifies “spark” to indicate that it’s being used in the singular sense with reference to the noun-form “human dignity.” Of course, being a countable noun, “spark” can possibly also take the plural form “the sparks” in that phrase, but it’s clear that the writer consciously decided to use the singular form “the spark.” This choice, I am sure, shows that the writer intuitively recognized that “spark” is being used figuratively and should logically be singular in relation to “human dignity.” (To say “sparks of human dignity” sounds laughably absurd!)
Now, as to “human dignity,” it’s an abstract uncountable noun-form denoting the quality or state of a person’s being worthy, honored, or esteemed. Being uncountable, it is grammatically incorrect to precede “human dignity” with either the articles “a” or “the.”

When this is done, as in the sentences “It’s a sign of respect for a human dignity” and “It’s a sign of respect for the human dignity,” the resulting bad syntax is clearly evident.

This brings us back to the sentence in question: “But I also know that the spark of human dignity is never completely extinguished.” To recapitulate, “the” is needed before “spark” to indicate that it’s singular, definite, and figurative in sense, and “the” isn’t needed before “human dignity” because this noun-form is abstract and uncountable. Together, they form the figure of speech “the spark of human dignity”—a metaphor in the singular form expressing an abstract idea.

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1 Comment

  1. Walter P. Komarnicki on

    also heard in church:

    “the bread of the angels” and

    “may the almighty God bless you…”