Usage of articles a, an, the

Oct 3, 2013

Usage of articles a, an, the

Oct 3, 2013


From the newsroom

Raji Chacko

I am relieved to be writing a piece on articles in the English language. For the three articles in English (a, an, the), there are apparently quite a few in French. What makes it worse is that you have to know the gender of an object and affix the appropriate article (for example, the French will say la table since table is feminine or le livre since book is masculine; la and le are French articles). Do you wonder at my near-hysterical relief?

The English language is very kind in that it doesn’t expect you to determine if an object is masculine or feminine. All it needs you to do is identify whether you need a definite or indefinite article and more importantly, if you really need one. Remember, incorrect use of the article makes for awkward reading and gives one away as a non-native English user.

Are you sure?

Articles are of two types: definite and indefinite. ‘The’ is the only definite English article, while ‘a’ and ‘an’ make up the indefinite articles. So, the logical next question is:  how do you identify whether an object deserves an indefinite or a definite article?

One, there is shared knowledge. If your article, somewhat disturbingly, tracks the life of Robert Downey Jr, your readers will know that when you say ‘This morning, the actor left for his studio an hour late’, ‘the actor’ refers to the Hollywood star. If you and your husband are chatting and you say, ‘I paid the maid this morning,’ he will not wonder which maid you are talking about, unless he’s imbibed one too many at the after-work drinking session. The speakers/readers are in no doubt about the object in question.

Two, there is previous mention. A news item might say, ‘Last night, a thief was caught in Venice. The thief was trying to break into a jewellery store.’ ‘The thief’ here refers to the one who was caught in Venice last night. Three, you would use ‘the’ when an object cannot be confused for anything else: ‘The earth’s forest cover is fast disappearing.’ There is no room for confusion here because we know of no other planet similarly named.

The same rule applied in inversion would, therefore, apply in the case of indefinite articles. ‘An actor arrived at the studio where Robert Downey Jr was shooting.’ Really? Which actor? ‘I found a maid for us this morning, darling.’ Oh, I hope you interviewed many before picking one. ‘Last night, a thief was caught in Venice.’ Well, there’s lot more out there. ‘A star twinkled forlornly in the night sky.’ Oh, one of the many million, although how did you know it was forlorn?

Vowels to watch for

With the definite article, there is no room for further confusion because there is only one available for use. However, there are two indefinite articles, ‘a’ and ‘an’. How do you decide which one should be used? The rule is that objects that begin with a consonant take ‘a’ and those with a vowel take ‘an’. However, remember that it is not the spelling but the pronunciation that matters. So, ‘an apple’, ‘an elephant’, ‘a book’ and ‘a knife’ are simple. University becomes tricky though. Although it is spelt with a u, the pronunciation is with the sound of ‘you’ so it’s not ‘an university’ but ‘a university’. Similarly, with the ‘h’ in honour staying silent, it’s always ‘an honour’ and not ‘a honour’; however, it’s ‘a house’ and not ‘an house’ because the ‘h’ in house refuses to be silenced. Reporters typically seem to stumble around abbreviations. If you read abbreviations aloud and apply the rule discussed above, you should be able to get the correct indefinite article. For instance, it’s ‘an MSEB (pronounced em-es-ee-bee) spokesperson’ and ‘a UN (you-en) spokesperson’.

To use or not to use, that is the question

In my experience, many Indian English users are confused by the article, so they either use too much of it or leave it out completely. ‘The charges were filed against the leaders for the riots’ is too much to stomach. As an editor, I would prune this sentence to read ‘Charges were filed against the leaders for rioting’. I am guessing the charges wouldn’t be for the riots but for either participating in them or inciting them, so I change ‘the riots’ to ‘rioting’. ‘The leaders’ is a valid use of the article so I leave it untouched. To me, ‘The charges’ would be valid only if a reference has been made to charges earlier. If not, ‘the’ is superfluous in ‘the charges’, in my opinion.

‘I play the tennis’ is definitely incorrect use of ‘the’. There are numerous instances where an article is not necessary. To discuss all of them at length might be impossible here. I’ll refer you to the BBC link below which has some examples, and I will list some instances. An article is not needed when making generalisations about groups (Farmers are being neglected in Australia), days and months (I will travel to Thailand in May), proper nouns (Paris is a beautiful city; Osama was jailed), and names with titles (Prince William’s wife recently gave birth to their first child). When it comes to the names of places, there are some exceptions to be noted though. We say ‘the Himalayas’ but ‘Mount Everest’ does not take an article. ‘Egypt’ does not need an article, but in referring to the river, we say ‘the Nile’.

Of course, in newspapers and blogs, articles are the first to be swallowed up in headlines when tweaking for available space. The absence of articles does not impede communication; however, the correct use of it would mean getting your message across in an articulate fashion. For instance, the home page of the Independent today had two headlines: ‘Pigeon apocalypse: “Zombie” birds spark panic on the streets of Moscow’ and ‘In the dock: British “drug smugglers” face 15 years in Peru Jail’. The first of the two could have been rewritten as ‘Pigeon apocalypse: “Zombie” birds spark panic on streets of Moscow/Moscow streets’ without ‘the’; it wouldn’t drastically change meaning. However, if you remove ‘the’ from the second heading, it could be taken to mean that they’ve arrived in a dock somewhere rather than being on trial which is what the idiom ‘in the dock’ suggests.

If you are whining about the complexity of articles let me leave you with this thought. In French, definite articles have to account for masculine, feminine, plural, and words beginning with vowels. There are as many categories for the indefinite article as well. Aren’t you glad you have to deal with just three?

Some online assistance:

This is a concise look at articles and their usage. Good for a quick overview.

I am quite fond of the ccc.commnet grammar pages so you’ll find them frequently referenced here. This particular piece looks at articles under the broad heading determiners and also cites some useful resources.

An interesting discussion on articles posted in response to a question. Good examples.

          Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage


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