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  Weekly Feature: May 9, 2004
 

 

Using Articles in Grammar (Part 1)
L
's Weekly Feature

 

 

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 non-count nouns.

“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 enough?

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 article.

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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