9 rules to the make sense of the uses of the articles of English
So what does ‘the’ mean?
It means something SPECIFIC (both to the mind of the speaker and listener). When the listener knows which one the speaker is taking about, then it becomes specific. It also means something UNIQUE or overly FAMILIAR to us. No wonder people call ‘the’ Definite article. Let’s see an example of when ‘the’ means something specific:
In the above sentence, ‘the’ refers to some ‘SPECIFIC’ windows of a Church of the millions of windows we currently have in this world. By using ‘the’, the speaker makes sure which one he is describing.
If we didn’t use ‘the’, would it be impossible to understand what the sentence means? The answer is no. So why do we have to use ‘the’ then? The answer lies in the next question.
Why do we have articles in English?
Well English is a meticulous language. Since humans have a tendency to identify things by their character, languages (being a human creation) also have the property to identify things in various ways that are being described. And because of this fastidious nature of English language, the articles had to be invented and incorporated into the language. By the way there are languages that don’t have articles such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean.
So, if some things are specific in our world, there should be things that are not specific. In text books they are called Indefinite articles.
What is the meaning of ‘A’ and ‘An’?
Into the realms of ‘not specific’ come ‘a’ and ‘an’. The couple means ‘ONE or ANY’ out a set of things. So, to get a grasp of ‘A’ and ‘An’ two things have to be kept in mind: unspecific things, and one or any of that unspecific things. Have a look at an example:
All Alan desires is a bike.
Here ‘one’ bike will satisfy his desire; it doesn't have to be any specific bike like the read one or the blue one, or the one that has 6 gears.
What is meant by ‘no articles’?
Absence of articles in a front of a noun is referred to as ‘no articles’. But how do we realize when to leave out articles before a noun or noun phrase? There are two main situations to omit articles. Firstly when we talk about things in ‘a general sense’, we usually (not always) omit articles before those nouns. Secondly, we don’t put articles before unspecific-uncountable nouns and plural nouns. Don’t let bombard you with with those terms. All of them will be explained latter. Look at an example first:
Suffering makes people wiser.
In this example, ‘suffering’ does not mean the suffering you are going through now. It does not even mean the suffering of the poor, or the rich( yes, the rich has to suffer also). The type of suffering is UNSPECIFIC here. The word ‘suffering’ here means ‘the concept of suffering’ in a general sense. When we want to mean something for most situations, we don’t necessarily have to use an article.
What are the functions of article?
What we so far know is that articles are small words that are placed before a noun, and there are 3 of them( including No Articles, and considering ‘a’ and ‘an’ as one type). Each of them has unique functions. In order to get good at picking the right articles, we need to have a clear understanding of the functions of articles. There are three core concepts and some rules needed before mastering the articles. The three concepts are:
things that are specific (the)
one or any out of a set of things (a, an)
things in most situations or things in general (no article, a or an, the)
The main function of articles is to say in which category a noun belongs to. Now take a deep dive into those concepts. Let’s talk about ‘things in most situations’ first.
What do we mean by ‘Things in general’?
We can think of the phrase ‘things in general’ as ‘things in most situations’ for most people. Here are two examples to compare:
Life is complicated.( life in most situations, for most people)
The life of Charlie is complicated.(The particular life of Charlie)
Notice in the first example, before ‘life’ we did not use any articles, but in the second one we did. Why? In the first example, ‘life’ is used in a broad sense, wheres ‘life’ meant the particular life of a man called Charlie in the second example. That’s why there is an invisible ‘no article’ in front of life. By the way, if ‘in a broad sense’ or ‘thing in general’ seem confusing, you can think of it in two ways: ‘life’ in most situation or the idea of ‘life’.
Now we need some rules to get the articles in shape, and what we know so far is enough to establish a rule, knowing that ever rule has exceptions:
Rule 01- If we talk about a noun in general and it happens to be an uncountable noun, we use ‘No Article’ before that noun.
Death is inevitable for all us.
Things that can’t be counted as separate ones are called uncountable nouns like water, sugar, cloth etc. There are emotions that are also uncountable like love, contempt, joy. You may say now that ‘life’ is a countable noun. Yes it is. But keep in mind that some nouns could be both countable and uncountable. It depends on which sense it is being used. Context matters in using articles.
How quantity affects the use of articles?
The amount of a noun is another parameter that determines which articles will be placed in front of it. Here are three examples:
Dogs are friendly animal.(Dogs in general, for most dogs)
The city was full of dogs. (Dogs = more than one dog)
she wished a dog for her birthday present. ( A dog = one dog)
Notice in both examples the word ‘dogs’ were used in the plural form, but only in the second case it meant ‘more than one in number’. Interestingly in the first case ‘dogs’ meant most dogs of this world. Comparing the two examples, we can generate another rule:
Rule 02- If we talk abut a noun in a general sense, and it happens to be a countable noun, we then pluralize the noun and use ‘No Articles’ before it.
Houses are cheaper in the time of recession.
Horses are faster than camels.
In both examples, ‘houses’ mean almost all the houses, and ‘horses’ mean most horses. What to get from here is that we can use plural form of a countable noun to use it in a general sense.
Why choosing the right article is hard?
Picking up the right articles gets difficult when ‘thing in general’ mixes with ‘ one or any of a set’. As always examples are the best way to understand.
A mother always loves her kids.(a mother = any mother of the world)
Mothers always love their kids.(mothers = most mothers of the world)
The meaning of the two sentences is essentially the same. The jest of these examples is that ‘a’ sometimes can mean ‘Any Member’ of a group instead of just ‘One’ of a group. You may want to read the last sentence couple of times.
Rule 03- If we talk about a noun in a general sense and want to mean ‘any member of a group’, we can use ‘a’ or ‘an’ before it.
But keep in mind, that you can’t put ‘a’ or ‘an’ before an uncountable noun. The followings are examples of Rule-03:
A butcher must have a solid heart. (a butcher = any botcher)
A remorse in thoughts can cure a lot of agony.(‘a remorse’ is incorrect)
Remorse in thoughts can cure a lot of agony.
Since ‘remorse’( an emotion) is an uncountable noun, we can’t use ‘a’ before it even when we want to mean ‘remorse in a general sense’.
When ‘the’ means ‘a group as a whole’?
You are informed earlier that ‘the’ means something specific, but it has the power to surprise us. It could also mean ‘a group as a whole’, if it is placed before scientific inventions, name of an animal, subjects of study etc.
Rule 04: If we want to talk about a scientific invention or an animated animal as a group, we can put ‘the’ before that.
The computer has the power to the change the course of humanity.
The tiger is on the verge of disappearance.
Here ‘the tiger’ doesn't mean any particular tiger; it meas tigers as a group. Likewise the computer means ‘all computers’ as a group, not just any particular computer. So the next rule should be:
So we can divide the nouns into three basic categories, one of them being ‘things in general’. So far we have 4 rules for this category and it is important to notice that all three articles (the, a or an, No Articles) could sit before a noun, when the noun is used in a general sense.
One out of a set of many things
When you don’t care which one you are talking about, you are into the realm of ‘One thing out of many’. For example, when you say, “Please give me a pen”. You don’t care which one or what type of pen you are given to. You just want ONE pen. With your not caring, which is another way of saying that it was not important, we have a rule here:
Rule 05: If you talk about one item out of many, and it is countable, we put ‘a’ or ‘an’ before it.
Take a look at another example:
She wants an ice-creme.
In this case she also didn’t care about the sweetness of the ice-creme. But why ‘an’?We use ‘an’ instead of ‘a’ before the nouns which starts with a ‘vowel sound’. Vowels and vowels sounds are different. It’s a good idea to memorize the vowels sounds to determine whether to choose ‘a’ or ‘an’.
‘a’ in introduction
In a story, an old friend comes to visit Alan’s house after a long
absence. Though the friend knows a little about his household, Alan
wants to tell him what has change since his departure.“We have
got a new cat which is so different form the
old one” , says Alan.
Notice the ‘a’ before cat. Also notice ‘the’ before ‘Old
One’. In both cases, although Alan knows which cat he is talking
about, he puts ‘a’ instead of ‘the’ before ‘new cat’, and
puts ‘the’ before ‘old one’. To understand the logic behind
this (introducing something new to a listener), we have to look at
Rule 06- If one of the participants or both are not familiar with the singular countable noun they are talking about, then ‘a’ is used instead of ‘the’.
So when you introduce something new to a reader or listener, you use ‘a’ or ‘an’ instead of ‘the’ although that thing is ‘specific’ in your brain. In the above sentence Alan puts ‘the’ in front of ‘old one’ because his friend knew about the old cat perhaps saw it previously. More examples:
After the accident, they took me to a hospital.(You know which hospital but your listeners aren’t familiar with that. So ‘a’ before ‘hospital).
The hospital was in a terrible shape.(Now that your readers are familiar with the hospital you used ‘the’.)
‘a’ in description
When we describe things or want to state that something exist, we usually use ‘a’/’an’ before that, even the things we are describing are specific to our minds. For example:
London is famous for having some fabulous buildings and towers. It is an old city founded by the Romans.
In the example, ‘an old city’ clearly refers to London, and we know which one the speaker is talking about, but instead of saying ‘the old city’, ‘an old city’ was written. Why? It turns out that:
Rule 07- When we describe things by using phrases like, ‘there is’, ‘there are’, ‘it is’,or describe someone’s profession or feature, we tend to use ‘a’ or ‘an’ before that noun.
There are a ton of examples of this rule that we use in daily life:
We live in a big house.(Description)
There was an abundant boat in the river.(Existence)
She has a long nose.(Someone’s feature)
He is a doctor. (profession)
All of the above belong to the ‘Descriptive category’. Hence ‘a’.
Things that are ‘specific’
When it comes to specific things, we have less options to choose, which is a good thing. Before specific nouns, we can place ‘the’ whether it is a countable or an uncountable noun, be it a plural or singular noun.
How does something become specific?
In a couple of ways. We will discuss three ones below.
Firstly, if a noun is mentioned after it’s first use.
Secondly, the speaker says which one by using some identifiable phrases.
Thirdly, the context of a sentence makes a noun specific.
But as mentioned earlier, a noun has to be specific both to the speaker and listener,before putting ‘the’ in front it. Let’s look at some examples:
I saw some foxes yesterday.(The listener doesn't know which ones)
The foxes I saw were healthy.(the listener now knows which ones, hence ‘the’)
Sometimes the speaker makes it clear which one he/she is referring to. Like:
Did you see the house up for sell in our neighborhood.
In the above example, by using the phrases ‘up for sell’ and ‘in our neighborhood’ the speaker makes the house a specific house. Hence “the’.
I went to to the Bahamas last year. The weather was awesome.
At dinner, Judith asked Alan to pass the salt.
In the first one, the speaker was taking about the weather of the Bahamas of that time. In the second one, ‘the salt’ clearly refers to the salt on that dinner table. In both case the contexts made the nouns specific.
When ‘the’ means ‘the one and only item’
Sometimes, we talk about a thing that has only one copy of its type, Generally big natural entities are included in this category. Rule first then examples:
Rule 08- When something is the only one of it’s type in the word or in a particular area, we use ‘the’ before it.
The sun will be alive only for a billion of years.
The moon inspired many poet to write poems about their loved ones.
As we have only one sun and one moon, ‘the’ is used before those. Also like them ‘the’ is used before the world, the earth, the future, the past.
When the means ‘one in an enclosed area’
By using ‘the’ sometimes we want to mean ‘an entity that belongs to a particular area’, and it would be hard to mistake it for others of its kind when it is mentioned.
The government wanted nothing but obedience in the
The President will imposed heavy tax on the poor.
In both of the above examples, ‘the presidents’, ‘the government’ did not mean all governments or all presidents or governments in general. Here ‘the’ indicates the government of the particular area of the speaker. The president is the the President of where the speaker lives in.
When ‘the’ indicates ‘a class’
Also notice that ‘the’ is used before the word ‘poor’ in the second example. What is the function of ‘the’ here. It turns out that to indicate a group as a whole ‘the’ is used before an adjective, like:
Who care about the unemployed?
Saying the poor and the rich are enemies of each other isn’t a good idea.
The Australians tend to be sporty.
So we can establish another rule here:
Rule 09- when we want to talk about a particular group as a whole, we generally put ‘the’ before it.
Contrast the following examples with each other:
Farmers always work hard.
In some cultures, the engineers are more valued than the farmers.
In the first example ‘farmers’ means ‘ the members of farming community’. Interesting in the second example ‘the farmers’ means ‘farmers as a group’.
‘The’ is used in various others ways. For instance, to describe ‘the environment around us’ like ‘the sea’, ‘the wind’, ‘the weather’( but strangely no article is used before ‘nature’); to denote body parts like ‘in the eye’, ‘in the stomach’; to build phrases that have ‘of’ in middle like ‘the nation of Canada’, ‘the articles of English’.
Have breakfast or a breakfast?
When we use names of meals in a general sense, we usually do not put an article in front of it. Take a look at these examples:
When do you have breakfast?
There are people who always have meat for lunch.
Choose a veg restaurant for dinner.
But if an adjective is added before the name of the meal, an article should be used:
The soldiers had to have a quick lunch due to the enemy’s attack.
Instead of having a small breakfast, she should totally cut off breakfast to become slim again.
So to conclude, when meals mean just meals in general ‘no article’ before it, but if an adjective comes to the picture, ‘a’ or ‘an’ is used. Also don’t forget to put ‘the’ before a name of a mean if the meal is specific. Like:
The lunch my new bride cooked was delicious.
What after the end
Whenever you see articles in a book or in a new report, try to rationalize the use of articles there by applying these 9 rules and 3 core concepts. Doing that enough times will make you sensitive to the articles of English. You will be amazed often by discovering that the articles you have used in a sentence just came out your heart without even thinking about it at all.