More than half of the mistakes I see in
student writing involves article usage. Are these mistakes easy
to fix? Most of them are. Let’s deal with the easy part first.
Rule #1: A singular count noun must
always have an article.
Notice that rule #1 has two nouns, “noun” and
“article”, and that they both have articles in front of them.
You need to place “a”, “an”, or “the” before a singular noun
that you can count. Non-count nouns should not be preceded by
“a” or “an”. Water, sugar, salt, and rice are examples of
“A” and “An” are indefinite articles to be
used with singular nouns that you have not previously
distinguished or are not unique. “A” is used if the next word
begins with a consonant sound; “an” is used if it is followed by
a vowel sound. That’s why, in rule #1, we have “an
article” and “ a singular count noun”. Notice that
it is the word that follows the article that is of relevance. As
an example, note the article change in the following two
phrases: “a car” and “an old car”.
Another thing to remember is that it is the
sound that counts. The vowel letters, aeiou, do not always
provide a fool-proof guide. Let’s examine the following
examples: a university, an umbrella, a house, an hour. Not all
vowel letters have vowel sounds, and some letters are not
sounded. Don’t worry if this is confusing. You will still be
right 99% of the time even if you only follow the letters and
not the sound. There are very few exceptions, and they mainly
involve the letter “u” and the “hou…” cluster.
“The” is a definite article to be used with
nouns that have either been previously identified or are unique.
The first time a common noun is mentioned, we usually use the
indefinite article. When this noun is referenced a second time,
the definite article is usually used. For example: A
man came to see me yesterday; the man was your
uncle. We can use “the” in the second instance because the man
has already been uniquely identified by our first reference.
In my classroom, I often illustrate the use of
the definite article by holding up a red pen and two black pens,
and asking a student to take the pen. My use of
the definite article implies that I have one particular pen in
mind, and the proper response from the student should be “Which
one?” To use the definite article correctly, I would need to
provide enough information to uniquely identify my choice.
“Please take the red pen.” should be clear enough. Do you think
“Please take the black pen.” would be clear
I could also have said, “Please take a
pen.” The implication would then have been that I didn’t care
which pen the student chooses. The student could safely choose
any one of the three pens without asking for confirmation.
The problem is that most of this is not new to
my students. The mistake has arisen not because they have used
the article wrongly, but because they have left out the article.
Errors of omission are hard to fix because the writer is usually
unaware of the problem. Sometimes this happens because ESL
learners translate their thoughts one word at a time from their
native language to English. If the source language does not have
an article, the lack of an article in the English version does
not become apparent. To overcome this, I get my students to
review their sentences to identify all the singular count nouns
and check that each singular count noun has an appropriate
You can try this for yourself by circling all
the singular count nouns and adding suitable articles for each
noun in the paragraph below: (If you did not get all 13, compare
your answers with the paragraph above.)
Problem is that most of this is not new to my
students. Mistake has arisen not because they have used article
wrongly, but because they have left out article. Errors of
omission are hard to fix because writer is usually unaware of
problem. Sometimes this happens because ESL learners translate
their thoughts one word at time from their native language to
English. If source language does not have article, lack of
article in English version does not become apparent. To overcome
this, I get my students to review their sentences to identify
all the singular count nouns and check that each singular count
noun has appropriate article.
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