Hello, all. The adjectives “a”, “an”, and “the” are so special that they have their own descriptive name. We call them articles. These three articles are simple to spell but their usage is not simple at all. I frequently see students using them incorrectly, so I thought I’d offer a lesson to refresh you on their usage.
We don’t use articles when we are talking in broad, general terms about an entire class of things. Here are some examples:
- I like to read books.
- Puppies are cute.
- Statues are usually made of stone.
- Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
- Truth is the opposite of falsehood.
- Some country names, such as Great Britain, France, or Spain do not require articles.
These two articles are singular and are generally only used with countable nouns. These articles are nonspecific, that is, they refer to one of several in a class of things. They cannot be used with something that is unique (one-of-a-kind). For example, we cannot say “a Statue of Liberty” because they is only one in the whole world. We can say “a boat” because there are many boats in the world.
“A” is used before words that begin with a consonant sound, and “an” is used before words that begin with a vowel sound. Here are some examples:
- A ball, a car, a house, a yacht, a history, a uniform (hard “y” sound as in “yes”)
- An apple, an elephant, an idiot, an otter, an understanding, an honor (“h” is silent)
This article can be singular or plural, depending on the noun it describes. “The” is specific; it is used to refer to a noun that all listeners can identify in some specific way. For example, if there are ten balls, and three are red, I cannot say “Give me the red ball” because there are three of them and I don’t know which specific red ball (of those three) you are talking about. If only one of the balls is green, then I can say “Give me the green ball” because there is no doubt in the listener’s mind which ball I am talking about because there is only one green ball in the group of ten balls. Here are some examples:
- The ball in your hand, the car that you own, the houses on this street, the people you know
- Some country names require “the”, such as the United States, the Russian Federation, or the People’s Republic of China.
As Always, Context is Important
When speaking or writing about something that is unique and therefore specific, “the” must be used. I went to see the Eiffel Tower and the great pyramids of Egypt. In the latter case, we are talking about a specific group of pyramids rather than a single pyramid. We are still being specific here. We are not talking about any pyramids in other countries, only those pyramids that are located in Egypt. Our context is clear.
Using “the” only gets tricky when talking about concepts or empirical nouns where custom dictates which article we use. For example, we generally assume there is only one truth, so we normally say “the truth”, as in “You should always tell the truth” (specific). However, we assume there may be many different lies, so we usually say “Don’t tell me a lie” (nonspecific).
To learn all of these quirks, you will just have to listen to native speakers and take your cues from newspapers, radio, TV, books, magazines, and the Internet (we consider that there is only one Internet that covers the whole world).
Shifting from Nonspecific (a/an) to Specific (the)
Context can sometimes cause the speaker to shift from nonspecific to specific within a sentence or paragraph. This is what often confuses students. Without any context, which of these is correct?
- I have the boat.
- I have a boat.
You should have answered that #2 is correct and #1 is incorrect. There are millions of boats in the world, and I don’t know which of those millions of boats is the one you have. But now I do know that you have a boat of some kind.
Now we want to talk about your boat. Given this context, I want to ask you the color of your boat. Which of the following is correct?
- What color is the boat?
- What color is a boat?
You should have answered that #2 is incorrect and #1 is correct. I don’t know anything about your boat, but you and I both know which boat in the whole wide world we are talking about. We are now talking about the boat that you own. The first mention of your boat made it change from nonspecific to specific. After first mention, it becomes “the boat” or “your boat” or “that boat”. It has become specific in both our minds.
There are a good number of specific rules about when to use these articles, but this lesson is intended to cover the general usage without adding too much complexity at this time.
Self-Assessment (What Have You Learned?)
Mark the following as right or wrong regarding the use of articles. Any wrong usage of an article makes the entire sentence wrong for the purpose of this exercise. Assume no context except what may be given in the sentence.
- There are five dogs over there. Do you see the dog?
- There are two pots on the top of the stove. Give me a little one.
- He said a boss is coming. We’d better look busy.
- I have five fingers. The smallest finger is called a “pinkie”.
- Do you see those two coffee cups? Bring me the one on the left, please.
- Can you tell me the time of departure for that train to Boston?
- You said you had a son and daughter. How old is the girl?
- You said you had two daughters. How old is a girl?
- Between Clinton and Trump, which one do you think is the lesser of two evils?
- There is an English-learning website called LEWWWP.
- The LEWWWP website is down today.
- I can’t get on an Internet.
- Do you have an Internet connection?
- The uses of the article “the” are often confusing to students.
- The articles “a” and “an” have a different usage than the article “the”.
If I missed any peculiar cases that need further explanation, let me know.