Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Go-To Guide: English Articles, Pt. 1

When working with students that speak English as a second, third, or even fourth language, we frequently discuss the use of articles in standard written English.

Articles are some of the smallest words in English — the, a, and an —and as a native speaker, articles are something I take for granted. But in many of the languages students bring to the Writing Center, these little indicators are already built into the word, usually revolving around whether the word is masculine or feminine. For example, cat is considered a feminine word in German, hence the built-in article is "die." When speaking about "the cat," one would use "die katze." Similarly, "the dog" is considered masculine, so "der hund" is used.

When attempting to explain why the student needs “the” in front of a word, I’m often at a loss for a clear and technical explanation. I never had to think about why these words were so important — at least until now.

The English articles include the, a, and an. The is used to describe a specific noun, whereas a/an describes a non-specific noun.

In grammar terms:

The = definite article
A/An = indefinite article

Here’s an example:

“Let’s pet the dog.”

In this sentence, the refers to a specific dog. Perhaps the speaker sees a friendly dog on the street, or visits a shelter with a friend. The speaker might not know the dog’s name, but using the indicates a specific dog.

In this same example, perhaps the speaker does know the dog’s name. By replacing “the dog” with a proper noun —the dog’s name — the article would be unnecessary (ex: “Let’s pet Rufus.”).

Here’s the next example:

“Let’s pet a dog.”

In this sentence, a refers to a dog, but not a specific one, as a could be referring to any dog at all. An works the same way (ex: “Let’s pet an elephant.”).

In these sentences, a/an indicates that we don’t know the specifics on which dog or elephant we’d like to pet.

One of the hardest parts about articles is figuring out if we need to use a or an in a sentence. Despite both being indefinite articles, choosing which one to use relies on the sound following the next word.

If the word following the article is a singular noun that begins with a consonant, use a:

a girl; a truck; a motorcycle; a park; a cat

If the word following the article is a singular noun that begins with a vowel, use an:

an eggplant, an olive; an eagle; an anteater

If the word following the article is a singular noun that begins with a consonant sound, use a:

      a unicorn (sounds like “yoo-nee-corn,” begins with a consonant “y” sound, so a is used); a university; a unicycle     

If the word following the article starts with a silent “h,” use an:

      an hour; an heir

But if the word following the article starts with a pronounced “h,” use a:

      a horse; a haircut

These guidelines are the foundation of a/an usage in written English. Questions? Please feel free to share below. 

In my next post, we’ll take a closer look at how the definite article works, as well as what to do in situations where article usage isn’t clear or isn’t needed at all.

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