Writing Natural Language Rule Statements — a Systematic Approach Part 27: Terms and Determiners
About this series of articles
While my first series of articles on writing natural language rule statements explored a wide variety of issues in a rather organic and hence random manner, this series takes a more holistic and systematic approach and draws on insights gained while writing my recently-published book on the same topic. Rule statements recommended in these articles are intended to comply with the Object Management Group's Semantics of Business Vocabulary and Business Rules (SBVR) version 1.0.
The story so far
In earlier articles in this series (see the "Language Archives" sidebar) we have looked at standardised rule statements for various types of operative rules (data rules, activity rules, and party rules) and definitional rules. Each specific type of rule statement has a common formulation which we have discussed in both a relatively informal way and by way of rule statement patterns.
In the previous article we looked at some of the syntactic components that may be found in rule statements of all types, namely prepositional phrases and qualifying clauses. In this article we shall look at two other common syntactic components, namely terms and determiners.
All rule statements include terms, rendered (according to SBVR conventions) in underlined teal, e.g., travel insurance application, birth date, and passenger in rule statement RS15.
|RS15.||Each travel insurance application
must specify exactly one birth date
for each passenger.
must not occur
during system maintenance.
With the exception of verbal nouns (such as online banking) in activity rule statements (such as RS297), all terms used in rule statements should be countable nouns (or count nouns). These are nouns that may legitimately be used after an indefinite article (a or an). For example, it makes sense to say "a travel insurance application", "a birth date", or "a passenger" whereas it does not make sense to say "*an online banking". Travel insurance application, birth date, and passenger are therefore countable nouns, whereas 'online banking' is a non-countable noun (or mass noun).
As described in Finch, the following additional characteristics distinguish countable from non-countable nouns:
- Each countable noun has both singular and plural forms (e.g., author, authors) whereas a non-countable noun has only the one form: usually singular (e.g., online banking) but occasionally plural (e.g., goods).
- A singular countable noun requires a preceding determiner (see below) such as an article (a, an, or the) when used in a sentence. Thus "*author signs book" is an invalid sentence whereas "each author signs his book" is valid. By contrast, non-countable nouns need no preceding determiner when used in a sentence; in fact, many determiners (in particular, a or an) are invalid before a non-countable noun. Thus "information is useful" is a valid statement, whereas "*an information is useful" is invalid.
As an aside, some nouns can be used in both countable and non-countable senses. For example, in a restaurant we can order "a coffee", "two coffees", etc. so that the waiter brings the correct number ('coffee' here is countable), whereas in a supermarket we buy "coffee", not "*a coffee" or "*coffees" ('coffee' here is non-countable).
Many nouns (e.g., passenger) consist of only one word. For convenience we can refer to these as simple nouns. A compound noun, by contrast, consists of more than one word (e.g., travel insurance application, birth date). There are various forms of compound noun, including:
- a simple noun preceded by one or more pre-modifiers, each of which may be:
- an adjectival (an adjective or a simple noun acting as an adjective), e.g., business unit, domestic flight, group purchasing contract, electronic transfer payment receipt, or
- a cardinal number (as in one-way flight) or ordinal number (as in first-time buyer);
- a simple noun followed by a post-modifier:
- an adjective (as in Attorney General, court-martial), or
- a preposition and another simple noun (as in date of birth, mother-in-law);
Note that the plurals of these are formed by changing the initial noun to the plural form, e.g., Attorneys General, courts-martial, dates of birth, mothers-in-law.
- two simple nouns joined by a conjunction (as in parent or guardian, terms and conditions).
Occasionally words of other classes may be employed to act as nouns, as in management buy-out, in which 'buy out' — normally a phrasal verb — is being used as a noun.
Note that the words in a compound noun may be separated by spaces or hyphens. There are also compound nouns in which the constituent words are written without intervening spaces or hyphens, e.g., lawsuit, checkout.
One or more determiners can be used before a term to indicate which (or how many) instances of the signified concept are being referred to.
We've already encountered some: the articles a, an, the, and the quantifier each. While some schools of thought consider these to be separate word classes, I am treating articles and quantifiers as types of determiner.
Consider the following rule statements.
must specify exactly one quantity
for each product.
must specify exactly one postal code
in the delivery address (if any).
placed by other than a premium customer
must not specify a discount code.
specified for each product in each order
must be greater than 0.
|RS302.||The combination of locality name, state code and postal code
specified in the delivery address (if any) in each order
must be one of the combinations of locality name, state code and postal code
allocated by Australia Post.
Each of these rule statements except RS300 is an obligation statement, in which the fact that the rule applies to all orders is indicated by the determiner each before order. Rule statement RS300, being a prohibition statement, must start with an indefinite article (a or an) as "*each … must not …" sounds unnatural.
Each is also used when the rule applies to each instance of anything in a transaction (in this case an order) that can appear more than once (in this case, a product). Thus each is used before product in rule statements RS298 and RS301.
The definite article (the) is used in two circumstances in data rule statements such as these:
- in a data rule statement such as RS299 or RS302, in which the rule applies to one or more data items (locality name, state code, and/or postal code) that are part of a complex data item (delivery address) that appears only once
- at the start of a data content rule statement such as RS301 or RS302.
Using articles properly
A or an is used before a singular noun when referring to an unspecified single instance, e.g., a customer, an address.
The can be used before a singular or plural term. It is frequently misused — it can only be used legitimately before a singular term when referring to:
- the only instance of that concept that exists, as in "the Australian Government"
- the only instance of that concept that exists in the context that has been established, as in "the defendant" (in a court case)
- (where an instance of the concept has already been referred to) the instance already referred to (by inclusion of same after the), as in "the same day"
- (where two instances of the concept exist — or exist in the context already established — and one has already been referred to) the other instance (by inclusion of other after the), as in "the other party"
- the only instance of that concept that meets the criterion or criteria specified:
- by one or more adjectives, nouns, or other determiners between the and the noun, as in "the first period", "the hardware shop" and/or
- in a qualifying clause after the noun, as in "the person named in the application".
Similarly the can only be used legitimately before a plural term when referring to:
- all instances of a concept, as in "the Australian states"
- all instances of a concept that exist in the context that has been established, as in "the people" (in a constitution)
- (where particular instances of the concept have already been referred to) the instances already referred to (by inclusion of same after the), as in "the same products"
- (where particular instances of the concept have already been referred to) all other instances (by inclusion of other after the), as in "the other rooms"
- the only instances of that concept that meet the criterion or criteria specified:
- by one or more attributive adjectives or nouns between the and the noun, as in "the updated records", "the Sydney offices" and/or
- in a qualifying clause after the noun, as in "the passengers specified in the booking".
There are many other determiners. In this article I will discuss only those that are useful in rule statements.
Specific determiners are used to limit the term to referring only to a specific instance or instances. The is a specific determiner, as are also:
- the demonstratives that and those
- the same, the other, the only
- the ordinal numbers first, second, third, (etc.), and various other words defining position in a sequence, such as last, next, and previous.
Any of the ordinal numbers may be used after the to indicate which member of some sequence is referred to, as in "the first stop". There are other words or phrases that may be used in a similar way:
- the last, where the number of members in the sequence is not known or can vary
- the first or only, when the statement refers to a sole instance or the first of a number of instances, as in RS303
- the last or only, when the statement refers to a sole instance or the last of a number of instances, as in RS303
- the second or any subsequent, when the statement refers to any instance except the first, as in RS304
- the previous or the next, when the statement refers to the member before or after some other member previously referred to, as in RS304
- every second, every third, etc., as in RS305.
|RS303.||The departure time of the first or only return flight (if any)
specified in each flight booking confirmation
must be no earlier than 1 hour after the arrival time of the last or only outgoing flight
specified in that flight booking confirmation.
|RS304.||The departure time of the second or any subsequent outgoing flight (if any)
specified in each flight booking confirmation
must be no earlier than 30 minutes after the arrival time of the previous outgoing flight
specified in that flight booking confirmation.
|RS305.||The carry-on bags of every fifth passenger
must be checked for explosives.
General determiners limit the number of instances referred to by a noun without being specific as to which instance or instances are referenced. A and an are general determiners, as are also:
- the quantifiers all, both, every, each, any, no, either, neither, etc.
- another, other (but not the other, which is a specific determiner)
- the cardinal numbers one, two, three, (etc.), and various other words defining how many instances are involved.
Any of the cardinal numbers may be preceded by one of the following:
- exactly, to express a more rigorous statement as to how many instances are involved, as in rule statement RS299
- at least, to express the minimum number of instances involved, as in rule statement RS300
- of the, as in rule statement RS301.
|RS306.||Each flight booking request
must specify exactly one departure date.
|RS307.||Each flight booking confirmation
must specify at least one passenger name.
|RS308.||The origin city
specified in each flight booking request
must be one of the cities served by the airline.
Note that the following determiners can only precede countable nouns:
- cardinal and ordinal numbers
- the last, the first or only, the last or only, the second or any subsequent, the previous, the next, every second, every third, etc.
- those, the other, another, either, neither, both, every, each.
For example, we cannot say "*one information", "*the first governance", "*either training", etc., since "information", "governance", and "training" are non-countable nouns.Note also that some determiners can only precede singular nouns and some can only precede plural nouns while some can precede either singular or plural nouns.
To be continued...
In the next article in this series I will look at verb phrases and conditional clauses.
 The first of which is: Graham Witt, "A Practical Method of Developing Natural Language Rule Statements (Part 1)," Business Rules Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Feb. 2009), URL: http://www.BRCommunity.com/a2009/b461.html
 Graham Witt, Writing Effective Business Rules, Morgan Kaufmann (2012).
 Semantics of Business Vocabulary and Business Rules (SBVR), v1.0. Object Management Group (Jan. 2008). Available at http://www.omg.org/spec/SBVR/1.0/
The font and colour conventions used in these rule statements reflect those in the SBVR, namely underlined teal for terms, italic blue for verb phrases, orange for keywords, and double-underlined green for names and other literals. Note that, for clarity, these conventions are not used for rule statements that exhibit one or more non-recommended characteristics.
 A rule that states what must or must not happen in particular circumstances, and which can therefore be contravened, by contrast with a definitional rule.
 A rule that constrains the data included in a transaction (a form or message) or a persistent data set (e.g., a database record).
 A rule that constrains the operation of one or more business processes or other activities.
 A rule that makes a distinction between different parties or the roles they play.
 A rule that defines a construct created or used by an organisation (or the industry within which it operates), or defines a property of such a construct, and which cannot therefore be contravened, by contrast with an operative rule.
 Graham Witt, "Writing Natural Language Rule Statements — a Systematic Approach — Part 26: Some Common Syntactic Components of Rule Statements," Business Rules Journal, Vol. 15, No. 9 (Sep. 2014), URL: http://www.BRCommunity.com/a2014/b777.html
 A phrase formed from:
• a preposition, such as for, from, in, of, on, to, or (in the case of a temporal constraint) after, before, during, earlier than, later than
• an optional determiner, such as a, an, any, each, that, the
• a term, such as passenger, credit card.
 A clause used after a term in two ways:
1. following the subject term of a rule statement, to restrict the scope of that rule statement to a subset of the set of objects signified by that term, rather than the set of all objects signified by that term (e.g., 'for a return journey' in "Each flight booking request for a return journey must specify exactly one return date.")
2. following any other term in a rule statement, to make a constraint more specific than if the qualifying clause were absent (e.g., 'that is current' in "Each passenger must present a passport that is current.").
 A noun formed from or otherwise corresponding to a verb phrase.
 Syntactically-incorrect constructions are conventionally indicated by way of an initial asterisk.
 G. Finch, Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics (2nd ed.), Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan (2005).
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