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Concourse 2

The article system

articles

Articles in English form a particular sub-class of determiners.  If you want the overview first, therefore, you should look at the guide to determiners.

Easy question: How many articles are there in English?  Easy answer: 3.
Less easy question: what are they?
Less easy answer: a(n), the and ∅ (the zero article).
In some analyses, some is also considered an English article but it is probably best considered in the area of (un)countability.  This section focuses on the three identified above.


1

Rule 1

Decide what you are talking about.  There are only three choices:

  1. One or some of many – indefinite specific reference
  2. All of them, everywhere – generic reference
  3. This one exactly – definite specific reference
2

Rule 2

In each of these categories, there's a choice of which article to use.
If we are talking about indefinite specific reference (one of many or some of many), we can have, e.g.,
    A man came in
    Men came in
    Good furniture is expensive
If we are talking about generic reference (all of them, everywhere), we can have:
    A car is useful in the country
or
    Cars pollute
or
    Petrol is expensive
If we are talking about definite specific reference (this one exactly), we can have:
    The car is outside
    The sugar is in the cupboard
    The cars are here
    Great Britain is an island

What are the choices of article in each category?

Here's the picture:

articles

3

Rule 3

It matters if the noun is countable or uncountable, singular or plural.

Indefinite specific reference (one of many)
many

Questions:

  1. If you use indefinite specific reference and want to talk about one of many uncountable things such as acid or types of furniture what article do you use?
  2. If you use indefinite specific reference and want to talk about one of many countable things such as tigers or chairs, what article do you use?
  3. If you use indefinite specific reference and want to talk about many countable things such as tigers or chairs, what article do you use?

Make a note and then click here for some comments.

Generic reference (all of them, everywhere)
eath

Questions

  1. If you use generic reference and want to talk about all uncountable things such as money or water what article do you use?
  2. If you use generic reference and want to talk about all countable things in the plural such as tigers or chairs, what article do you use?
  3. If you use generic reference and want to talk about one countable thing in the singular as representative of all such as tiger or wheel, what article do you use?

Make a note and then click here.

Definite specific reference (this one exactly)
select

Questions:

  1. If you use definite specific reference and want to talk about one amount of a particular uncountable thing such as acid or sugar what article do you use?
  2. If you use definite specific reference and want to talk about more than one countable thing such as tigers or cars, what article do you use?
  3. If you use definite specific reference and want to talk about one countable thing such as tiger or car, what article do you use?
  4. If you use definite specific reference and want to talk about one particular proper noun such as Berlin or Mary, what article do you use?

Make a note and then click here for comments.


exception

Quirks and exceptions

Exceptions with the

The English article system is often wrongly presented as an impossibly difficult area.  As we saw, however, the rules are quite simple.  There are, however, a few quirks and exceptions concerned with the use of the definite article.  Many of these, however, can be traced back to the rules above.
These aren't lesson topics – they should be taught as and when they arise.

  1. One teachable case of definite specific reference (this one exactly) is when the noun has been mentioned or it can be assumed that a unique reference is intended and understood.
    So we get, e.g.
        A car drove by and the driver waved
        The toilet's probably upstairs
    etc.
  2. When a noun is modified, it's also a sign of definite specific reference.
    So we get, e.g.
        The man who is married to the Minister
        The author of this article
    etc.
    A subset of this category contains country names which are modified: the United States, the Federal Republic etc.  Otherwise, nations and languages take ∅ (the zero article).  Another subset contains things like the Doppler Effect, The Theory of Relativity etc. but when the possessive 's is used there is no article: Einstein's Theory, Murphy's Law.
  3. Unique objects (or objects unique in a certain shared setting): the sun, the moon, the Milky Way, the queen, the president etc.  A subset of this category contains things like nationalities, geographical areas and superlatives: the Greeks, the French, the biggest building, The Atlantic etc.  This can be explained by noting that the modifier has been omitted: The (River) Amazon, The Tate (Gallery) The Alps (Range), The Hilton (Hotel).  Note the convention to capitalise the article in some cases.  Plural countries always take the article: The Netherland, The Bahamas.
  4. Families count as plural definite specific reference: Take tea with the Windsors
  5. Rivers always take the definite article the, even if they aren't unique: The Stour, The Thames, The Nile.  Lakes don't usually but modification (The Great Lakes) occurs.

Exceptions with ∅ (the zero article)

  1. Some common prepositional phrases often with verbs like go, have, get, eat, and be involve indefinite specific reference: go by bus, be in school / church / prison / hospital, go to university etc.  The nouns are nearly always means of transport, meals, illnesses or institutions: have appendicitis, get flu, eat lunch, travel by air, go to college etc.
  2. Times with the prepositions at, by, after, before take the zero article but those following during and in take the: at dawn / sunset / night, by dusk / sunrise / evening, after dark, before nightfall, during the day, in the morning etc.
  3. Parallel structures take ∅: hand in hand, man to man, right to left, pen in hand etc.

This page is available as a PDF document.


There are a couple of exercises for more advanced learners on article use in the section for learners on this site.  Go to that index, find the exercises and see if you can identify which rules from all of this are applicable.
There is also one lesson for elementary-level learners which focuses on the for unique use, some for mass nouns and plural count nouns and the known-unknown rule for using a(n) and the.

If you are happy that you have understood the nature of the article system in English, you can go on to considering the teaching and learning implications in this area.  Click here to do that.


Click to take a test in this area.