(the) furniture of the 18th century

VicNicSor

Senior Member
Russian
She's studying European history [1]
She's studying the history of Europe.
[1b]
(....) we notice a slight difference between [1] and [1b]: whereas [1b] implies that she is studying the history of Europe as a whole, [1] allows the interpretation that she is studying only some aspects of European history or a particular college course.
The type of contrast illustrated above by [1] and [1b] can also be noted with concrete noncount nouns, and with plural nouns:
This museum specializes in 18th century furniture. [2]
This museum specializes in the furniture of the 18th century.
[2a]
Alice is engaged in research on South American butterflies [3]
Alice is engaged in research on the butterflies of South America
. [3a]
But in these cases it is to a greater or lesser degree acceptable to omit the:
The museum specializes in furniture of the 18th century. [2b]
?Alice is engaged in research on butterflies of South America.
[3b]
A comprehensive grammar of the English language

As I see, they mean that [2b] is "to a greater degree", and [3b] is "to a lesser degree". But I don't understand why. Does it have to do with furniture being noncountable, while butterflies being countable?
Thank you.
 
  • Lazzini

    Senior Member
    As I see, they mean that [2b] is "to a greater degree", and [3b] is "to a lesser degree". But I don't understand why. Does it have to do with furniture being noncountable, while butterflies being countable?
    A good question - one that has made this native speaker think for a couple of minutes. I don't think it has anything to do with countability. If we look at the sentence about Alice and butterflies, I would say that:

    "Alice is engaged in research on butterflies of South America." means that she is interested in some, but not necessarily all, of South American butterflies, while...

    "Alice is engaged in research on the butterflies of South America." means that she is potentially interested in all of them.

    It's a fine distinction. and I would be interested to read other views.
     

    Linkway

    Senior Member
    British English
    I personally dislike the reliance on very subtle semantic distinctions being made with regard to whether "the" is used or not in contexts such as the examples you have given.

    If something is important it should be stated clearly, to avoid endless discussions/arguments about what the writer actually means.

    Having said that, I think that the use of "the" implies a 'canon' or some kind of fairly comprehensive coverage.

    I don't think it has anything to do with countable and uncountable nouns as such,

    "She is researching butterflies in South America" could mean that she is studying just one or two types of butterfly.
    ("researching" is a difficult example; common sense says that a specific field trip to research butterflies could not mean ALL butterflies.)
    Her research report could be very focused, for example on the breeding habits of the lesser spotted Argentinian spottaccicus.

    "She has written a book entitled 'The Butterflies of South America" would imply that the coverage was extensive if not comprehensive.
    I would expect that book to provide information on a wide range of butterflies from various countries in south America.

    Notice the phrase in your notes: "is to greater or lesser degree acceptable" - so we are not talking simply about whether the intended meaning is different.

    It's easy to see that there are multiple aspects to this issue:
    --- acceptability or 'correctness';
    --- important differences of meaning OR semantic nuances;
    --- style and personal preference;
    --- achieving clarity proportionate to the importance of the difference AND with regard to the variations among the very wide range of English users globally.
     

    srk

    Senior Member
    English - US
    To try to reinforce what Linkway and RM1 are saying, "to a greater or lesser degree" does not mean greater in the first example and lesser in the second. It means that whether or not to omit the definite article depends in varying degree on many considerations.

    I think that [2b] and [3b] are simply [2a] and [3a] repeated without the definite article. What leads to the choice between the a- and b-forms is not stated.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    As is so often the case, a topic question with a range of examples raises a number of interconnected issues, which could all be responded to at some length. I will address the specific issue raised at the end of the original post.
    But in these cases it is to a greater or lesser degree acceptable to omit the:
    The museum specializes in furniture of the 18th century. [2b]
    ?Alice is engaged in research on butterflies of South America. [3b]
    they mean that [2b] is [acceptable] "to a greater degree", and [3b] is [acceptable] "to a lesser degree".
    That is right. By the question mark, the authors mean that [3b] is seen as less acceptable. I agree that there is something problematic about it.
    But I don't understand why. Does it have to do with furniture being noncountable, while butterflies [are]countable?
    I see no ground for that. There is another kind of difference.

    (1) 'The furniture of the eighteenth century' is a category of furniture, the style being defined by the period. Without the article, 'furniture of the eighteenth century' does not involve any categorical difference. It merely means that the whole category is not specified: the subject of study is some eighteenth-century furniture, not all.

    (2) 'The butterflies of South America' are a group rather than a category, since some of them could be of the same species as those found elsewhere and some could be of different species.
    Without the article, 'butterflies of South America' suggests to me that the subject of study is some species, but not all. The problem as I see it is that the phrase does not strictly differentiate between 'some South American species, but not all' and 'some South American butterflies, but not all'.
     
    Last edited:

    VicNicSor

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Thank you all for the answers.

    The problem as I see it is that the phrase does not strictly differentiate between 'some South American species, but not all' and 'some South American butterflies, but not all'.
    To be honest, I can't see a problem here. It seems to me that when it comes to "research on animals/plants/insects of some place" it always implies "species", am I wrong?


    A question: the another thing which is unclear to me here is the difference (if it exists) between [2]/[3]and [2b]/[3b].
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    A question: the another thing which is unclear to me here is the difference (if it exists) between [2]/[3]and [2b]/[3b].
    [2] and [2b] are presented in the original quotation as unproblematic equivalent expressions.

    The question is why [3] 'research on butterflies of South America' should be less acceptable than [3b] 'research on South American butterflies'.

    My answer is that, on the one hand, [3b] is not problematic: it is obviously equally applicable to research on more than one species and to research within a single species; and that, on the other hand, [3] suggests, but does not entail, that it refers only to research on more than one species. This leaves it unclear whether the writer intends to specify in that sense or not.

    This may not seem a great problem: but what better possibility is there?
    The authors cannot be referring to the distinction of countable or non-countable, since the point of the original is to show a feature which is common to both types.
     

    VicNicSor

    Senior Member
    Russian
    The question is why [3] 'research on butterflies of South America' should be less acceptable than [3b] 'research on South American butterflies'.
    I see you've made some typos here and thus, I'm not sure if the [3b] and [3] in your further explanation relate to the numbers in the quote in #1 or to those in your quote. Could you clarify it? Thanks.
     

    aasheq

    Senior Member
    English (Estuary)
    It should be:

    This museum specializes in 18th-century furniture.

    and:

    Alice is engaged in research on South-American butterflies.

    With hyphens.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    I see you've made some typos here and thus, I'm not sure if the [3b] and [3] in your further explanation relate to the numbers in the quote in #1 or to those in your quote. Could you clarify it? Thanks.
    Sorry! I misplaced the letter 'b'. What I meant to say was:

    The question is why [3b] 'research on butterflies of South America' should be less acceptable than [3] 'research on South American butterflies'.

    My answer is that, on the one hand, [3] is not problematic: it is obviously equally applicable to research on more than one species and to research within a single species; and that, on the other hand, [3b] suggests, but does not entail, that it refers only to research on more than one species. This leaves it unclear whether the writer intends to specify in that sense or not.
     

    VicNicSor

    Senior Member
    Russian
    I've understood the difference between [3], [3a] and [3b]. Though I still don't understand why 3b is problematic.:eek:
    It's probably because I don't completely understand these explanations:
    >>unclear whether the writer intends to specify in that sense or not
    >>and 'some South American butterflies, but not all'.


    (I suspect that 'some South American butterflies, but not all' means "within a single species")
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    With the phrase 'South American butterflies', we know where we stand. We know that the author knows (and vice versa) that it may refer equally well to a number of butterflies within one species, or to a number of butterflies across more than one species.
    In that respect, it is unspecified, but we know that the author intended it to be unspecified.

    On the other hand, the phrase 'butterflies of South America' seems (to me at least) to suggest butterflies of different species, but when considered logically does not necessarily mean that. Accordingly I cannot tell whether the author means the same as when saying 'South American butterflies', or a more specified sense (namely, South American butterflies of different species).
    It may or may not be unspecified and we are not sure which the author intended.
     

    loghrat

    Senior Member
    British English / Danish
    It should be:

    This museum specializes in 18th-century furniture.

    and:

    Alice is engaged in research on South-American butterflies.

    With hyphens.
    I have to disagree with that. It is '18th century' and 'South America'. Without hyphens.
     

    aasheq

    Senior Member
    English (Estuary)
    You are free to disagree, but any style manual will tell you that if you use "18th century" as an adjective you need to write it with a hyphen.
     

    loghrat

    Senior Member
    British English / Danish
    Mea culpa. I was a little hasty in posting.

    However, I belong to the 'hyphens can be left out if the meaning is clear and unambiguous' school.;)
    And in this case, there is no likelihood of misunderstanding.

    Note also: '[Hyphens] are not as common today as they used to be.' (oxforddictionaries.com)
     
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