THOSE people were looking at AN elephant in THE zoo. Articles, Quantifiers and Determiners in English
Part One: Articles
Many learners of English have difficulties with articles because the system of defining nouns can vary widely between different languages, and the system in English is both very simple (we only have 3 articles) and very complex (we use them in sometimes quite complicated ways).
WHAT ARE THE ARTICLES IN ENGLISH?
It is generally accepted that there are three basic articles in English:
- zero article
WHAT DO ARTICLES DO?
Articles work in a similar way to adjectives and modify nouns. Which article a speaker uses depends both on the type of noun and how the speaker views that noun. This means that you need to understand
- the type of noun (countable singular, countable plural or uncountable), as well as
- what type of modification (general or specific; or part of a way of seeing things) you want to make
It all can seem complicated, but in this week’s blog we’ll try to make it simple and point you to some useful websites where you can find further information and do some exercises to practice using articles.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE ARTICLES?
“The” is called the definite article because it usually comes before a noun which is specific or has previously been mentioned. “The” can be used with singular, plural or uncountable nouns.
However, “a” and “an” are called the indefinite articles because they are used to refer to something which is not specific, as well as singular.
In contrast, the zero article is used to refer to things in general, either in the plural or uncountable.
This means that the correct article depends on whether the noun it modifies is
- general or specific
- singular or plural
- countable (or “count”) or uncountable (or “non-count” / “uncount”)
Let’s look at them one by one and see some examples:
- 1. THE:
The basic rule for the definite article “the” is that it is used with specific nouns, whether countable or uncountable. This means that both the speaker and the listener know WHICH THING (or things) is being referred to. This can be because:
- the noun it refers to represents something that is one of a kind. (E.g The Earth circles the sun.) There is only one Earth and only one sun, so it is clear what the speaker is referring to.
- it is clear from the context what is being referred to. (E.g. Please open the door.) Both speaker and listener can see which door.
- the noun it refers to has been mentioned before. (E.g. An elephant escaped from the circus last night. The elephant was last seen at 9pm.) The listener knows which elephant because s/he has already been told in the first sentence.
- the noun is defined by the speaker. (E.g. The mountain I could see from my hotel room was beautiful.) The speaker is telling the listener which mountain within the sentence. This is often used with nouns followed by “of”. (E.g. the leader of the gang or the president of our club)
So the MAIN rule is: if you know, and your listener knows, which particular thing or things you’re referring to, then you need “the”. Simple, really
However, there are some more rules about further uses of the definite article.
- “the” is used with some kinds of proper nouns:
- Geographical places (E.g. The Mediterranean, the English Channel, the Danube, the West, the seaside, the Andes, and the Sahara)
- Names which are pluralized or represent a grouping. These can be geographic, family or team/group names (E.g. the Netherlands, the Bahamas, the United Kingdom, the Smiths and the Rolling Stones)
- Many public institutions: (E.g. the British Museum, the Ritz, the Houses of Parliament and the Catholic Church)
- Newspapers: (E.g. the Irish Examiner or the New York Times)
- “the” is used with musical instruments (E.g. She plays the piano and the violin)
- “the” can also be used when the noun it refers to represents something in the abstract (E.g. The use of the private car has overtaken the use of public transport in many cities.) See below for more information on speaking in general.
- “the” is used with superlatives (E.g. the best, the fastest, the most important) and with some comparative expressions (E.g. the harder you work, the more you can earn)
We can follow the same idea of “the” expressing something specific when using it with countable and uncountable nouns. We can see this in the following examples: E.g. I love to swim in the water (a particular body of water) vs. I love to swim in water (any water). OR He dropped the sugar all over the floor (specific sugar – maybe you had bought it earlier that day) OR He dropped sugar all over the floor (any milk).
Remember “the” does NOT mean the same as “all”. If we want to talk about all of a certain category, then we are speaking in general. See below for more on this. Compare “The clothes are expensive” (Not all clothes are expensive, just the ones we’re talking about) and “Clothes are expensive” (All clothes are expensive.)
“A” is used for singular countable nouns that begin with consonants (a horse, a baby, a room); and we use “an” when the noun begins with a vowel (an apple, an elephant, an office). “A/an” is used to refer to a non-specific or indefinite member of a group. For example, I want to buy a new mobile phone. There are many mobile phones, but I don’t have a particular one in mind.
Remember that we decide whether to use “a” or “an” depending on the initial sound of the noun, not the initial letter. This means we say an hour as the h is silent; a university and a European because the initial sound is like a y; and a one-off because the word one begins with a w sound.
“A/an” comes before the adjective that describes a noun so the initial sound of the whole noun phrase can influence whether we use “a” or “an”. (an empty room, a tasty apple).
WHAT ARE THE RULES?
In English, we use the indefinite articles to talk about one of a group. E.g. Sheila is a teacher. This tells the listener that Sheila is a member of the large group of teachers.
When we first mention something, we use an indefinite article to modify it. The second or further references use the definite article. (E.g. An elephant escaped from the circus last night. The elephant was last seen at 9pm.) Notice “the” for the second mention of the elephant in the second sentence. See above for more.)
There is an exception to this rule! When there is an adjective between the article and the noun, the subsequent article will ALSO be indefinite. (E.g. A:“Please can I have a big glass of water?” B:“I’ve already put a big glass of water on the table.”)
- ZERO ARTICLE:
What if the noun is not specific (so we can’t use “the”) and not singular (so we can’t use “a/an”)? For generic reference (talking about things in general) we can use any of the three articles, but we usually use the zero article.
Uncountable nouns and plural countable nouns are used with zero articles when they are generic (i.e. not specific). E.g. We likewine withcheese. People usetools formany purposes).
Remember, when a generic noun with zero article and then referred to in a subsequent reference, it will have become specific and will need a definite article. E.g. CEC installed newcomputers last year. The computers are in Room 13.
There are several types of nouns which never take an article. We do not use articles with:
- Languages (E.g. I’m learningEnglish). [Of course, the word “English” can refer to the people – not the language, and then you follow the normal rules. E.g. The English (a specific group of people) are famous for their tea-drinking]
- Sports and academic subjects (E.g. She’s takinglaw at university but playsbadminton at weekends).
- Institutions (E.g. He’s inchurch/ He’s incollege/ He’s inprison/ He’s inhospital/ He’s atuniversity) [BUT if we are thinking about the building not its function as an institution, then you follow the normal rules. E.g. He’s inhospital (because he’s ill, using the institution) inside the college (the location of the building – he isn’t studying)]
- Meals (E.g. We’re havinglunch at 1pm anddinner at 8pm.)
- Diseases (E.g. She hascancer / She hastuberculosis / She hasflu) [There is an exception: She has a cold]
- TALKING ABOUT THINGS IN GENERAL
Talking about things in general can get complicated, because we can use all three articles and it can be quite confusing. This example is from http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/determiners/determiners.htm
- A beagle makes a great hunting dog and family companion.
- An airedale is sometimes a rather skittish animal.
- The golden retriever is a marvellous pet for children.
- Irish setters are not the highly intelligent animals they used to be.
If you’re not sure, it is best to use the zero article when speaking in general as you’re more likely to get it right. Look at http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/determiners/determiners.htm if you would like more information on other uses
Abstract nouns are generally both uncountable and not specific. This means you usually use zero article (E.g. Injustice can cause people to revolt.) However, if an abstract noun is being used in a specific sense, then we can use “the” (E.g. The injustice of being imprisoned when innocent caused him to weep); and if it is used as a singular example, we can use “a/an” (E.g. An injustice such as this should be stopped immediately).
We hope you’ve found this useful. Next time, we’ll continue exploring Quantifiers and Determiners.
In the meantime, here are some sites to help you learn more about articles and practise using them correctly.
There is a quiz at http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/quizzes/cross/articles_quiz.htm to test your knowledge of articles.
You can find another interactive quiz at http://www.learnenglishfeelgood.com/english-article-no-article1.html
For information on articles, there is useful information at http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/determiners-and-quantifiers
Watch a YouTube video on lesson on articles at Articles lesson
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Next time we will look at quantifiers and determiners in English… hopefully you can make it again!