The Articles in the English Language
What are the articles?
Articles precede another word, usually a noun, to give further information about that word. There are two types of articles:
(1) The definite article (the) is used to indicate something specific, such as in the sentence, ‘The house is very cold today because the heating system is faulty’. This refers to a specific house and a specific heating system, probably the house of person saying this sentence.
(2) The indefinite article (a or an) is used to make a general and unspecific statement, such as, ‘We want to buy a house when we are married.’ This refers to a house generally and not a specific house.
The Articles in Different Languages
Native English speakers normally use the articles correctly in spoken and written English, although most of them are probably not aware of the precise grammar rules. However, people who have learnt English as a second language often find difficulty in using the articles correctly.
The reason for this is that different languages use the articles differently, in fact some languages have no articles at all. For example, Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Polish (and most other Eastern European languages) do not have articles. Arabic has articles, but uses them differently (as prefixes or suffixes) from how they are used in English. The Celtic languages and Hebrew have definite articles, but no indefinite; whereas Turkish has indefinite articles, but no definite. Almost all Western European languages have definite and indefinite articles, but these change according to gender and number, particularly in French which also has what is known as the partitive article. For example, in referring generally to butter, an English speaker would say ‘butter’ (no article), but a French speaker would say ‘de beurre” (de is partitive article). The nearest English equivalent to the partitive article is ‘some’; for example, ‘I made some butter in the dairy today’.]
How to use the articles in English
The Definite Article
The definite article (the), as previously explained, refers to something specific. It can be used before singular, plural and mass (uncountable) nouns. For example, with a singular noun, ‘Thank you for the book you gave me for my birthday.’ and with a plural noun, ‘I must return the books I borrowed from the library, otherwise I will have to pay a fine.’, Both of these refer to a specific book or books. An example of the definite article with a mass noun is, ‘The behaviour of the students has improved since the new teacher arrived’. This refers to a specific behaviour — that of the students.
The Indefinite Article
The indefinite article (a or an) is used in a general and non-specific sense; for example, ‘I have nothing to do tonight, so I shall watch a film on television’. This refers to a film generally, as the person has not yet decided what film to watch, but later the speaker may say ‘I enjoyed the film’ (definite article), referring to the specific film after watching it.
The indefinite article cannot be used with a plural or uncountable noun. For example, someone may say ‘I have been waiting for a taxi for half an hour’ (Correct use of article for singular noun), but ‘Taxis do not pass so frequently at night.’ (Notice ‘taxis’ has no article; this is correct). Another example for a mass noun is, ‘There was a hole in the roof, so water poured into the house.” (This is correct; water is an uncountable noun, so needs no article, although it would be correct to say ‘some water…’. When the indefinite article precedes a vowel it is ‘an’ rather than ‘a’; for example, ‘an egg, an apple’. Sometimes it is used before a consonant, such as ‘an honest person’ because in this case the ‘h’ is silent. However, ‘a’ is used in cases such as ‘a house’ because the ‘h’ is not silent. Sometimes ‘a’ is used before a vowel, such as ‘a university’. However, ‘an’ is used before an abbreviation such as ‘an SME’. Although ‘S’ is a consonant in this expression, it is pronounced ‘es’.
The Articles before Placenames
Usually in English, the articles are not used before placenames; for example, Australia, Brazil. Exceptions are when a placename refers to a collection of countries; for example the United Kingdom, or a collection of states, the United States. Note also the no article is used before ‘China’ , but in the full title ‘The People’s Republic of China’ the article is used.
In some phrases, an article is used before a noun that serves as an adjective, ‘a London theatre’, Indefinite article because it is one of many theatres; but ‘the village shop’, definite article because it implies it is the only shop in the village.
A common error of putting an article where it is incorrect is with the word ‘society’.
For example; ‘People of various occupations have different roles in the society’ – Incorrect
‘People of various occupations have different roles in society’ – Correct.
However, note that when speaking of a specific society, such as ‘The Royal Society’, the definite article is used.
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