Sunday, January 21, 2007


My dad, who studied English as a second language, often torments me with questions about the English grammar. One issue that comes up again and again is the use of articles. Now, my dad’s English is pretty good, and he has studied grammar in school and on his own. So he knows that an indefinite article ‘a/an’ is used when the noun in question is “not specific” and a definite article ‘the’ is used when the noun is “specific.” But such a generalization proves almost useless for a second language learner when actually composing a sentence.

Is there a practical, workable way to know exactly when to use ‘a/an,’ ‘the’ or no article? Or should I just tell my dad to flip a coin?



Pat said...

Your father might be comforted to know that copyeditors struggle with articles too.

For example, the MANOA staff is working on a feature on the partioning of India that occurred in 1947. In some pieces, this event is referred to as "Partition," in others as "the Partition," and in a few pieces as "the partition." I am going to recommend that it be referred to as "Partition" throughout the issue. This would be comparable to referring to Hawai‘i’s joining the union as "Statehood" instead of "the Statehood."

Where the names of books and periodicals are concerned, you use "the" if it is part of the title and no article if it is not. For example, we would say we read the Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Magazine.

If we are talking about plural nouns, things get tricky. "I applied to an educational institution," "I applied to educational institutions," and "I applied to the educational institutions Hawaii Pacific University and UH" are all correct.

Hmm, let me think about this some more. I'll write more later.

Pat said...

Takashi, I just found this page of Common Errors: a/an. Please take a look; maybe you'll find it helpful.

Pat said...

And this one too: "an" with h-words.

Takashi said...

Thank you for the references!

But I am still not clear on WHEN to use articles and not…Do you need an article for every noun in a sentence? I’m finding it hard to explain why some nouns seem to take articles and others not.

I once read that a word "advice" doesn't take an article because "advice" is non-countable. How about words like “idea” and “suggestion”? Don’t we say, “That’s a great idea!” or “I have a suggestion”? To me, those two words are as non-countable as “advice."

I guess I'm looking for a definite rule or guideline to know exactly when to use articles and not.