Columns on ELTNEWS.com View All Columns
Visit ELTBOOKS - all Western ELT Books with 20% discount (Japan only)

Writing Right

Helping and assisting writers

June 07, 2010

How to pick the correct article (at the top of nouns) most of the time

If you are like most learners of English, you are often unsure about articles, where to put which, and when. Here I would like to give you a couple of rules of thumb that will help you pick the right article eighty percent of the time. If you are still wondering, articles are the little words to put in front of nouns: a/an/the/ΓΈ (nothing).

When you think about which article to use, the first thing to remember is to keep your reader in mind. What does this person (the reader) already know and what is new in a sentence/story? Now the rules:

1. If you are writing a noun that is well known or something that was already introduced in a story - add the definite article "the."

2. If you are writing a noun for something the reader likely doesn't know or it is something you are introducing into the story in this sentence (often the same thing) use a/an .

3. Proper nouns - names (of things etc.) that may start with a capital letter - usually use no article.

4. Another way to distinguish which article to use is to think about whether something is "general" then no article) or "specific" then rule 1 or 2 above.


If you are writing a noun for something that is well known (in a story) use "the."


If you are introducing a noun for something new (with a noun) use "a" or "an"


Which of "a" or "an" to pick? Use "a" for words that start with a consonant (b, c, d, etc.) and "an" with words starting with vowels (a, e, i, etc.). But you may break this a/an rule by adding "what sounds like" after "with" in the previous sentence - so you may see "an history" - "h" dropped when voicing "history" and people on stage may say "an hat" not voicing the "h" and making it sound like "an at".

Well, that is nearly all there is to deciding which article to use. It is really this simple, but when we think about what a reader would know or what is specific and what is general, then it is often difficult to agree with the ideas of others and there will be disagreements. There are so many opinions. If you do a computer search you will often end up with no good guidelines, computer searches report just what others wrote, not what is right in any particular way. Next issue, what can conscientious writers do to improve their writing?

On your own, you can train your "ear for English" so you can learn to trust your own intuition better. Listen to how people speaking English use articles and notice articles as they appear in print. Then, when you think something is wrong, start to think. Maybe you see an article before a noun, in print somewhere, in a place you thought there shouldn't be one or where it should have been another article. Then, because it has been printed it is quite likely that it is an accepted usage, and you should try to think about why it is (or is not) there. Also, when someone is speaking and uses a "funny" article, ask why this person used it (if you can get away with that), or on your own think about a reason why it was used.

Then when you are told that your choice of articles is wrong - where you thought you were right - don't argue, just accept the correction. The eyes (and ears) of others are often good at catching wrong (or just unusual) article usage. Of course, think about who is telling you to correct, and if you trust (or maybe have to trust) the English of your corrector, follow the advice and accept it at face value. Usually the meaning will not be completely ruined by a few misplaced articles, but see below.

If you do what I am suggesting in the previous paragraphs (regularly, repeatedly) you will become more confident at picking articles. However, if you do it a lot (try really hard to get everything right) you may get very tired and maybe more confused. Limit yourself to three (or some other number that suits you) instances at a time but keep doing it as long as you think you need to improve in this department.

More things to consider

Getting confused about articles is really easy. One reason is that for example "a" can mean several things. It can be an indefinite article like we are discussing here, or it can mean one of a thing mentioned. Like, if you see the sentence "I have a car." without further context you do not know what "a" means in this sentence - is it an article or is it the number one? The reader cannot (should not!) guess without further context.

But, how often did you see a sentence like the car sentence without a context to make it comprehensible, and still had to think about the meaning? Maybe many times in your English study, and you may even have been asked to put such sentences, which have any number of meanings, into Japanese or some other language - and been told that you were wrong if you didn't give the answer the test demanded. Likely the test answer was wrong and you could be right. This, tests of "English" that are not English, is of course not a problem of English but a problem with English education. But remember, because of this situation, it is reasonable that you are confused and unsure about what is what, certainly with articles.

Recently I saw two sentences like these:

a) Original: In experiments here we irradiated figure in tube. (This sentence appeared in the section of a paper with the procedures for some experiment that had been introduced earlier.)

This original sentence seems to show that the paper mentions the three nouns for the first time, they present new information. I suggested that the sentence be changed to:

a) Corrected: In the experiments here we irradiated a figure in the tube.

Then the sentence would say that the reader would know about (the paper has already mentioned) "experiments" and "tube," but that the "figure" is a new thing for the reader to pay attention to.

And the second sentence:

b) Original: A questionnaire was administered to examine participants' perceptions of effectiveness of an assignment of homework. (Again we are deep into the paper after several mentions of everything in the sentence.)

Here the sentence seems to show that we have a "new" questionnaire and some homework assignment that is different from what the reader has been told about previously. My suggested correction was:

b) Corrected: The questionnaire was administered to examine the participants' perceptions of the effectiveness of the assignment of homework.

The corrected version tells the reader that there is nothing new in the sentence, the sentence is just recording this step of the process (reminding the reader), and the reader does not need to pay attention to anything new here.

Using articles well will make your readers trust you and you will understand your writing better.


How do you like the corrected b) sentence? I don't like it really, it seems heavy. There are too many "the" in it, but it could have been worse, like: The questionnaire was administered to examine the participants' perceptions of the effectiveness of the assignment of the homework. Now "the" appears five times, and the last three just for details of the specifics of the homework. It would be possible to cut the "the" before "assignment" in the corrected sentence. That would make a better looking sentence (I think) but with the "the" before assignment the reader is alerted to the fact that there is nothing new here, no need to think deeply. So, I suggested this not so wonderful sentence with the extra "the" because that would make it clearer to the reader. When we write papers we should first of all try to be clear!

Please read the original b) sentence and the one with "the" five times in the middle of the previous paragraph once again. What do you think? For me the original seems light and airy - maybe devoid of relevance in a serious paper. The sentence with "the" five times seems clunky and over insistent. When you are writing, the job is to strike a balance between these two extremes, "meaning lost" vs. "inflexible insistence on rules." The goal is to find a balance where the writing is informative but not too pedestrian.

Of course, we are just scratching the surface of article usage here, but follow the advice above and you will be more right than wrong. You will also have a couple of ideas for how to think about articles without bothering to remember any obscure grammar. Good luck, and do post a comment with what ideas you may have and we can share them around, or tell us what I missed out on.

Using articles well will make your readers trust you and you will understand your writing better.



« Sentences, Paragraphs - how long and how many | Main | Advance organizers, redundancy, word choice, punctuation, and more little stuff explained. »

Comments

Thanks a lot
it is a wonderful article

Comments

Events

World Today