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Why is the English article such a problem?

by: Marilyn Owen (23 October 2014)

Recently, a colleague pointed out that one of the most common problems that he encounters while proofreading students' theses is the lack of both the definite and the indefinite article (the and a). However, there is a very understandable reason as to why overseas students find it so difficult to know where to place the article in an English sentence. It is that in so many non-European languages, there is no article! It is not easy for speakers of languages that do not have a separate article to know, in every case, when to insert the or a before a noun.

Below are some very brief rules:

  • The definite article the is used when referring to a specific noun. This can be either singular or plural.
    Examples: The computer is in the office.
    The printing cartridges are on the shelf.
  • We use the indefinite article a to convey the meaning of any.
    Example: Please bring me a pen any pen is fine.
  • However, the definite article the is used in more specific instances as in:
    Please hand me the black pen as I need to complete this form.

There are, in fact, 198 languages, which do not take a separate definite article. These include oriental languages such as Mandarin, Thai and Japanese, most Slavic languages such as Russian, Polish, Czech, Lithuanian and Latvian, as well as Farsi, Tamil, Latin and the ancient language Sanskrit.

Here are some other useful points to remember:
There is no article with names of countries and languages, meals such as breakfast, lunch and dinner and with names of people and titles such as Lord, King etc. However, there are always exceptions to general rules watch this space for further information!

Meanwhile, our job as proofreaders and editors is to dutifully insert articles into sentences written by our overseas students!

For more see Uses of articles and WALS Feature 37A: Definite Articles

Views: 2167

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Ref: 120 I didn't know this. It's useful to understand why non-native English writers have problems with our articles!
Garry - 15:09 23-10-2014

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