Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why Articles Matter - the Known and the New

On Sunday at the World Fantasy banquet I mentioned to my neighbor that I was going to write this article.

"I'm going to write about the importance of articles," I said. He replied, "Why articles? You could write an entire story without them."

He's right, of course. You could - but there would be problems. Not just that the story would sound funny, either. Articles tell you whether something is known information, or new information - and this can be incredibly important to your management of information. Here's the ultra-simple example I used with my WFC neighbor:

1. I walked into the room. There was a man!

2. I walked into a room. There was the man!

In sequence 1, we assume we know the room being talked about. It's been mentioned before in the story, maybe even in the previous sentence. At very least, there's only one room in question, and the narrator is familiar with it. When the narrator then walks into the room, he/she makes a discovery. There is a man there. This is new information. The narrator does not recognize this man at first glance. It might be someone he/she has never seen before, or simply a failure to recognize the man that will then later be corrected. The point is, at least for the moment, the article tells us that we have not encountered this man before.

In sequence 2, the only thing that has changed is the articles. It's a little clunky, but I think you can see the difference. In this case, the room is what is new information. The narrator has either just discovered that a room is there, and informed us by walking into it, or there is a collection of rooms available to potentially walk into, and the article tells us that the narrator has just picked one. At that point, the narrator discovers a man that he/she has encountered before. It may be a man that the narrator has previously mentioned to readers, or it can be a man who has never been previously mentioned in the text, but who is known to the narrator somehow. Indeed, if we haven't seen him mentioned in the text before, our very next question will be, "What is his significance to the narrator?" Because the article will cause us automatically to assume he has one.

Back when I was writing my article about proper nouns, I quoted Wikipedia as saying that proper nouns don't get used with articles. Ahm, sorry, Wikipedia, but they do - in special contexts, of course.

If in my story the narrator calls a person George, rather than "a man," it suggests certain things. At very least it suggests that the narrator recognizes him and has heard of him before. More likely, they have met before and know each other. There's a lot of known-vs-knew information taken care of right there. So you're only going to find the article added in unusual contexts where there is extra information, or an unusual situation, to be imparted.

Surely you can imagine the waiter approaching you at the dinner table and saying, "A Mr. Jones is here to see you." If the waiter simply said "Mr. Jones," then it would suggest that the waiter knew him in some capacity. In fact, it wouldn't be ungrammatical if the waiter simply said "Mr. Jones," but in that case the waiter would be taking a sort of insider stance, behaving as if he/she and the diner shared this acquaintance in some way.

We also are all familiar with the expression "the John Smith." It's most typically used with emphasis on the "the" to tell us that among all the possible John Smiths in the world, this one happens to be a specific individual that the speaker and listener can identify as known to both of them in a very obvious way. That's why you will usually find this type of article appearing in front of the name of a famous person who has something of a common name, or occurring in a context where the name of a famous person is familiar, but the context is unexpected. Nobody would be surprised to hear me say, "I saw Neil Gaiman this weekend." But if next week I were to say, "I saw Neil Gaiman at my sports club," listeners would likely say, "Surely not the Neil Gaiman?" Because it would be next to impossible for this illustrious author to appear at my sports club, and far more likely for whoever-it-was to be someone who just happened to have the same name.

Tracking articles in a story is not usually going to be something you handle consciously. It's a niggly little job when you do. However, it's a good thing to watch out for because it can really throw readers off. If people are giving you comments like, "Who is this guy again?" or "I'm confused - has he been here before?" you might have an article problem.

Articles are also extremely important when it comes to creating the sensation of insider point of view. We sometimes can unconsciously use the articles that reflect our own knowledge rather than that of the narrator, or another character's knowledge rather than this one's. Make sure as you're going through your revisions to take a look at what your characters are treating as known, as familiar, as belonging to them (a very common implication of using "the" to suggest something is known). Look also at what they consider unfamiliar, and what they are discovering (a common implication of "a").

It's something to think about.