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On Articles

If your mother tongue is a language that uses no articles, like Russian or Ukrainian, you may often be confused about how to use them in English. In fact with some people it gets so bad that they either omit them altogether, which makes them sound rather strange, or use them seemingly at random, saying things that they don’t really mean.

Here are few pointers on how to not get lost in the world of English articles.

There are two and a half articles in English, sort of, there’s the definite (pointing out) article ‘the’ and then there are two forms of the indefinite (classifying) article ‘a/an’. The indefinite article also has another hidden form that is never heard or seen but is sometimes referred to as the ‘zero’ article.  The deal with the zero article is that the indefinite article originated from the old English word for ‘one’ and thus it can’t be used with non-countable nouns or plural countable nouns thus if you need to classify a non-countable noun or a plural noun you use the ‘zero’ article, i.e. no article at all.

The/a/zero all modify or add to the meaning of the noun you put them in front of. In languages that don’t have articles these subtle differences in meaning can usually be inferred from the context or shown by word order. In English you just have to remember that when talking about something, you can either be talking about something specific, something both you and your listener/reader know about or you can be talking about something in general, something that needs to be named or classified or put in a category.  In the former case you always need ‘the’ and in the latter case it’s always either a/an or zero.

Thus when deciding on which article to use (the/a/an or zero), the first thing to consider is always whether what you’re talking about is ‘unique’ in the given context.  If it is, then use ‘the’ (but please remember that I’m talking about common nouns here, most proper nouns don’t take any articles in most contexts unless the article (usually ‘the’) is part of their name which happens usually when you make a proper noun plural (John Smith but the Smiths) or when the name consists of a phrase with the preposition of as in the University of London). The good news here is that with ‘the’ i.e. if your common noun is ‘unique in the given context’ you don’t need to worry about whether it’s plural or singular or whether its countable or uncountable.

Examples: He is the man I told you about.  They are the men I told you about. This is the water I bought yesterday. (all unique in the given context, here I made them all unique by specifying which man/men/water I mean)

Now if you’ve established that your common noun is not unique – the next thing you got to ask yourself is whether your noun is countable or uncountable. Now it has to be remembered here that the countability or un-countability of a noun is determined by its semantics, or its meaning. For example chicken can be countable when you mean a bird (a chicken, many chickens) but it can be uncountable when it means chicken meat (then it’s a mass noun). Now if your noun is uncountable and you want to use it to classify something, then you use the ”zero article’

Examples: What is this? This is water (we simply classify the thing you’re pointing to as water) What’s that? That’s chicken (here I mean chicken meat, you’re pointing to the meat on my sandwich and you want to know what kind of mean I have on it and I tell it’s chicken – a mass noun, uncountable so zero article)

Now if your noun is countable, the next question you have to answer is whether it’s a plural noun or a singular one. If it’s plural then once again we go with the zero article.

Examples: what are those? Those are buildings. Animals are generally not as smart as humans.

And finally if our common noun is countable and singular then we ‘must’ use a or an

What’s that? That’s a pencil. What’s this? This is a pen. Is it a school or a university? That’s an apple.

Note that you use an before a vowel sound, not a vowel letter – we say a university because even though the letter u is a vowel the sound it makes in this particular word is not a vowel.  Conversely, we say, it’s an honour to meet you because the letter ‘h’ that the word ‘honour’ starts with is ‘silent’ so even though the first letter in ‘honour is a consonant, the first sound is a vowel – o.

Another thing to remember about the articles is that adjectives almost always go between the noun and the article, i. e. we say

This is an apple. This is a big apple, the apple is big. (note how when we insert the adjective ‘big’ in front of apple the article changes from an to a, because now the first sound in the noun group ‘big apple’ is a consonant). Now the reason I said that adjectives ‘almost’ always go between the article and the noun is because when an adjective is modified by an adverb the adverb+adjective group can sometimes go before the article. It’s not true for all adverbs though. People say

this is a fairly large house, but they say this is too big a house for me


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