"What were the actions that we took to remedy this situation?
First of all, we formulated basic policies……
Next, we added short-term…… "
This week, I will be focusing on noun phrases again but in the form of titles. When translating titles from Japanese, I believe many of us struggle with questions like, “Should I use the singular or plural form for the main noun? Should I use ‘a’ or ‘the’ or nothing at all?” Suppose if you come across a title like,
(2) The Development Plans for Minato Ward
Have you ever wondered 1) Why is ‘the’ used when the ‘plans’ in question are being referred to for the first time? 2) What is the difference between ‘a plan’ and ‘the plans’?
Let’s start with the first question. One of the first things we learn about ‘the’ is that it is used to refer to something that has already been mentioned before. But this is not the only possible use.
If you search a bit further, it is not difficult to find the use of ‘the’ in (2) practically everywhere. For example, in the titles of books and movies, such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, “The X Files” and in advertisements, such as “The perfect location for your business in Macau”. The list goes on and on. Here the notion of referring to something specific is crucial.
We can do a simple test on (2) above in the following way:
(3) The development plans for Minato Ward in general
I added ‘in general’ to (2) above. Then this sounds a bit awkward for a
title, right? But if you take away ‘the’, it sounds better:
(4) Development plans for Minato Ward in general
Or better still, :
(5) General development plans for Minato Ward
(5) sounds more natural than (3) and (4) and it’s short and sweet. As the title implies, it does not refer to anything specific, so ‘the’ can be safely dropped.
Let’s consider another possibility. Can we drop ‘the’ and say:
(6) Development Plans for Minato Ward
Yes, of course. As shown above in (4), this one sounds less specific. Compared to (2), it could be plans in general that have not been discussed before. :
If you would allow me to side-track for a bit of trivia, I found out from Wikipedia that when “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was first published, Mark Twain didn’t have ‘the’ in the title. It was speculated that this could be because Huckleberry Finn’s adventures were not completed at the end of the story. This notion of completion has a hint of finality and definiteness, which ties in with the idea of referring to something ‘specific’ that we are talking about here.
In fact, the more specific a title gets, the more difficult it is to drop ‘the’. For example, if you have the name of a person or an organization in the title such as (7) and (8) below, it is very difficult to omit ‘the’.
(7) The Koizumi Development Plans for Kanagawa
(8) The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Development Plans for Tokyo
Let’s move on to the second question. The same notion of ‘specific’ versus ‘general’ can be applied to titles with ‘a’ and ‘the’. Compare the two examples below:
(9) The Development Plan(s) for Minato Ward
(10) A Development Plan for Minato Ward
One interpretation of (9) is that the plan(s) is a specific one that may have been discussed before. In contrast, (10) sounds like the plan is one of a few suggestions that have been put up and may not have been discussed before. To get a better feel for this, let’s do a little test. This is an actual example found on the Internet:
(11) A sustainable development plan for Lantau Island, HK
(11) suggests that this is one of several possibilities for the development of Lantau Island. But if we change ‘a’ to ‘the’,
(12) The sustainable development plan for Lantau Island, HK (?)
This implies that there is only one such plan in the whole universe. Is this likely? Not so, right? So, that’s why this example gets a question mark.
But if we change ‘sustainable’ to something more specific such as the name of a person,
(13) The Donald Tsang Development Plan for Lantau Island, HK.
Well, nobody can argue that there is only one Donald Tsang in the whole of Hong Kong, so (13) sounds perfectly good.
If we change the main noun to something not so specific, say like ‘suggestion’ or ‘recommendation’, then it gets more difficult to attach ‘the’ at the beginning of the title. Compare the two examples below:
(14) A suggestion/recommendation for developing Minato
(15) The suggestion/recommendation for developing Minato (?)
(15) will be acceptable if more information is provided to make it more
specific so that we know exactly what is being referred to.