What word appears most often in English? It's
"the," also known as the definite article. Its partner, the indefinite article
"a", is also
among the top 10 most frequent words in English. According to Professor Elka Todeva
of the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont, "a" and
"the" are also some of the most difficult words for learners to figure
out how to use without some assistance.
"A," "an" and "the" are called
articles. Why are these small words so hard to learn? More than 200 languages
do not have articles. Other languages have articles but use them differently than
English does. As a result, figuring out the logic of English articles can be challenging.
Professor Todeva says English article usage falls into
certain patterns. A basic understanding of common patterns can make learning articles
Fairy tales capture one such powerful pattern, which Elka
Todeva calls the a/the switch. The a/the
switch occurs between the first
and second mention. It is a shift from new to already familiar information.
Listen for the articles as she reads an example. Pay attention
to the way "a" turns into "the"
with the second mention
of the old man and the old woman.
"Once upon a time, there was an old man and an old
woman who lived in a little cottage in a vast open field. The old woman and the
old man were very hungry, so the old woman decided to bake a gingerbread man."
Before we explore this pattern and fairy tales further,
let us look at some basic rules for article usage.
"A" and "an" are indefinite articles used before non-specific members of a group or category of nouns.
The article "a" appears before singular nouns starting with a consonant
sound. For example, "I ate a banana." The article "an" comes before
singular nouns beginning with a vowel sound. For example, "Give me an apple."
is called a definite article.
appears before nouns which are specific members of a category as in, "I want
to see the movie
George Clooney just made." Also use "the" with previously mentioned nouns. For example,
"We went to a movie last night. The movie was called Spy." Use "the" with unique things like the
front door, and the
tallest man in the world.
The zero article
In some situations, there is no article before a noun.
Grammarians call this the "zero article." The zero article appears before
proper nouns, names like Picasso and John
Lennon. It also goes with names
of places and institutions which consist of a proper name and another noun, as
in Michigan State University.
There is also no article before the names of days, months,
seasons and holidays. There is no article before geographical names like Europe,
Italy, Tokyo, and Lake Superior.
The "zero article" applies to names of languages
and nationalities, as with Chinese or English. For example, "Spanish is spoken in Spain."
But if you are describing the people of that country, use the definite article.
are known for being friendly."
The zero article also goes with names of sports and academic
The "a/the switch"
Professor Todeva is both a learner and teacher of English.
She says the human brain loves patterns and finding logic behind things. She encourages
teachers and learners to explore grammatical patterns in fun, engaging ways.
She calls this "grammaring." Let's look at some common patterns in article
Professor Todeva takes us back to fairy tales, or traditional
stories, to demonstrate how the switch from "a" to "the" works.
"This particular pattern is very beautifully illustrated
in most English fairy tales and in many jokes as well. Most fairy tales in English
start with 'Once upon a time' … there is suspense, there is sweet anticipation,
we are not sure what the story is about yet; we expect something exciting and something
new, thus the use of the indefinite article at the beginning of most fairy
tales as in the following piece from The Gingerbread Man:
"Once upon a time, there was an old man and an old
woman who lived in a little cottage - first mention - in a vast open field."
Here, the story teller uses the indefinite articles because
the characters are new to the listener or reader. When the information becomes familiar,
the story teller uses the definite article, "the."
"The old woman and the old man were
very hungry, so the old woman decided to bake a gingerbread man."
You might notice the "a/the switch" in most jokes. Here is an example.
"A man walks into a doctor's office. He has a cucumber up his nose, a carrot in his left ear and a banana in his right ear.
"What's wrong with me?" he asks the doctor (because
it's already implied).
And the doctor says, "You're not eating properly."
Notice how the joke sets the stage with new information
first. It starts with "a" before switching to "the."
Another important pattern involves general statements.
General statements refer to all, or many members of a group. For example,
"Politicians only care about money." You will often see general statements
on bumper stickers. These are small labels on the back of cars that express the
owner's feelings or opinions.
You might see bumper stickers that say, "Well-behaved
women rarely make history" or "Teachers touch the future." Notice
that general statements use the zero article.
Here's another general statement that you will probably
agree with: "Articles are challenging for English learners." Look for
a future Everyday Grammar with more tips for using articles.
Take Professor Todeva's advice and let your brain pay attention
to some of the patterns that we just explored. Happy learning and "grammaring"
with the English language!