6.09.2005

Where did all this apple come from?

If you smash an apple with a hammer, then it becomes apple. If you smash a rock with a hammer, then it becomes rock. Or does it become rocks?

Maybe the change of the article depends upon our certainty of the object's origin. In the case of the apple, we are sure that the apple mush was at one point an entire apple. We saw the original apple. It was smashed apart. The chunks on the counter, the juice, the mush. They are apple. If we came to the scene after the smashing, would it still be apple? There would be a period of recognition. The taste, the smell, the look. Maybe we could identify it as apple. If we can't then it's something else all together.

Speedwell writes:
I disagree with the example. If you had a recipe for apple cake that called for "one mashed apple," for example, you would not think twice if the instructions said to "add the apple to the batter." By the same token, if it called for "three mashed apples,"then said to "add the apples to the batter," you would understand very clearly.

This doesn't undercut the example at all. One uses the article because of the recipe context which calls for specific quantities of ingredients. In the example sentences you have given, what is being being asked is this: "Add the "substance which we have come to call 'apple'" to the batter (not "the apple" meaning a whole apple). It is the difference between saying "the apple" and the "apple". If you follow.

Going back to Cristi's example. When confronted with the apple on the counter one could say "who got apple all over the counter?" However, if that person were commanding someone else to clean the "apple" off of the counter than they would say "clean the apple off of the counter". The same grammatical tricks are at play here as in the recipe example. Cristi?

4 comments:

Cristi said...

I think Scott's assessment is very solid, so I won't spend a whole post saying so.

I, also, am not clear on why speedwell's example is a disagreement. It seems to clearly illustrate the fact that, no matter what object we're talking about, (matter or object, plural singular, whatever), we can use the definite article as long as both speaker and listener are aware of a unique thing being referred to. "the apple" seems perfectly ambiguous between two readings (as scott says: "the apple" vs. the "apple"); only context and assumed shared knowledge between speaker and listener determine which reading is which.

Ms. Charisma said...

It is not the object's origin. It is our ability to count it:

A apple , 3 apples - 1 thing, 3 thing; hence the count noun syntax.

1 apple smashed, 3 apples smashed - apple goo. We can no longer count it, it becomes "some apple" and we label it with mass noun syntax.

It can be pseudo-counted again if we say 1 cup of [smashed] apple. but then we are counting cups not apples.

It's the syntax.

Seb (speculatively) said...

This may be a bit off topic, but speaking of smashing apple to peices, there's an interesting philosophical/psychological problem here.

I think it's normally stated something like: You have an object, some mass. Then you remove a very very small chunk of it. Is it still the same object? Yes? Then remove some more! And some more! MORE! MUHAHAHA....

Eventually, you're supposed to say, "No, stop! It's not the same object any more! Stop hurting it!"

I'm sure you get the idea: you're meant to throw up your hands and either become a nihilist because all your concepts are not well-defined, or realize that concepts are only an approximation of reality, or get some other metaphysical insight.

Anyway, I wanted to mention it because it looks like there's a similar but far more subtle thing going on here with the unfortunate apples. It's no longer a problem about the distinction (or lack thereof) between being [pause to figure out which apple...err...article to use] apple or not apple (apple or mush?), but between being a countable apple-object and a non-countable apple-lump. At some convenient point, it seems like a good (informative) time to make the switch, but the context (recipe, etc.) may influence us to make the switch earlier or later...

Ramble ramble ramble. I guess my point is that we should be anti-realists about countability, and that's pretty sweet. (?)

Cristi said...

I think - and this is an idea-in-progress - that we might look to language's mechanisms of change to reveal where these boundaries form. For instance, the difference that forms between "matter" and "object" is enabled by the changing linguistic categories of the historical moment.

That's kinda out-there, though.

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