Mastering articles part 4: Using articles correctly

So how can we apply this knowledge to use articles more accurately?

Consider these sentences. Both of them are introduction sentences for a student essay about how food has changed.

(1) Food is an essential part of human’s life. It is very important for human to survive in the world.

(2) In the past years, most Chinese people cooked at home and that was cheaper than restaurant. The family meals were common during that time.

Let’s improve (1):

(A) Food is an essential part of (B) human’s life. It is very important for (C) human to survive in (D) the world.

(A) “Food” is uncountable and generic. So “Ø Food” is correct.

(B) But in “Ø human’s life” there is a problem. “Human” is a singular countable noun but there is no article. The reference is generic.  So it needs to be corrected to “a human’s life”.

 (C) After that, the singular noun “human” is used without an article again, which is a mistake. It should be corrected to “a human” or better still “Ø humans”.

(D) Finally the student writes “the world”. This is definite reference, meaning “you know which world I’m talking about”. This is the correct use of “the”.

 

Now let’s improve (2):

(A) In the past years, most (B) Chinese people cooked at home and that was cheaper than (C) restaurant. (D) The family meals were common during that time.

(A) “The past years” means “you know which past years I am referring to”. But actually, there is no information about this. The reference should be generic. So it should be corrected to “Ø past years”.

(B) “Ø Chinese people” is generic reference, so the use of Ø is correct.

(C) Next, there is a problem. The student writes “restaurant” which is a singular countable noun, and the reference is generic. This needs to be corrected to “a restaurant” or better still “Ø restaurants”.

(D) Finally, why has the student used definite reference for “The family meals”? I don’t know which family meals are being referred to. So it should be corrected to the generic “Ø Family meals”.

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Did you find this blog and exercise helpful? Leave a comment below!

Mastering articles part 3: Generic and Indefinite reference

It is not so difficult to tell the difference between indefinite and definite reference:

I saw a chicken yesterday. (One particular chicken – you don’t know which one)

I saw the chicken yesterday. (One particular chicken – you know which one)

 

It is also not so difficult to tell the difference between plural generic and singular indefinite reference.

Ø Chickens can fly. (All chickens in general)

I saw a chicken yesterday. (One particular chicken)

 

The problem is distinguishing singular generic from singular indefinite. This is because both can be expressed through the article “a(n)”.

Are the following sentences generic or indefinite reference?

A chicken is a bird.

I saw a chicken yesterday.

 

Let’s test them. The test is to replace “a(n)” with “some”. If the meaning changes a lot, the reference is generic.

1(a) A chicken is a bird.                      ≠        1(b) Some chickens are birds.

2(a) I saw a chicken yesterday.          =        2(b) I saw some chickens yesterday.

 

In 1(a) the meaning is “all chickens in general are birds”. But in 1(b) the meaning is “not all, but only some chickens are birds”. The meaning has changed a lot, so 1(a) is generic reference.

In 2(a) the meaning is “not all chickens in general, but a particular chicken”. In 2(b) the meaning is “not all chickens in general, but some particular chickens”. Whether I saw 1, 3, or 100 chickens does not matter because I am not referring to all chickens in the world. The meaning has not changed a lot. So 2(a) is indefinite reference.

You can see that the same article can express different functions.

Singular count. noun
Generic reference a chicken
Indefinite reference a chicken

 

Animal Chicken Bird Hen Poultry Natural Fowl

Mastering articles part 2: Articles as Referrers

The use and non-use of articles depends on whether the noun is singular, plural, or uncountable. The function of articles is to refer to the noun in a certain way. This is why the class article has the function referrer. Generally, we do not use a singular countable noun without an article:

? Ø Chicken can fly.

 

This is not acceptable in most contexts because the intended meaning is “not just one chicken, but all chickens in the world can fly”. In other words, the chicken that I am referring to represents chickens in general. The reference is generic.

To repeat, we do not usually use a singular countable noun without an article:

? I saw Ø chicken yesterday.

 

The intended meaning is “just one chicken, but not all chickens in the world”. I don’t expect you to know exactly which chicken I am referring to. So, the reference is indefinite.

 

Now think about this sentence:

I saw the chicken yesterday.

Here, the intended meaning is “you know which chicken I mean.” I am referring to just one chicken, not all chickens in the world. Also, I expect you to know exactly which chicken I am referring to. The reference is definite.

 

So you see, articles have three different referring functions.

Correct form Reference type
Ø Chickens can fly. Generic
I saw a chicken yesterday. Indefinite
I saw the chicken yesterday. Definite

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Mastering articles part 1: Singular, Plural, and Uncountable nouns

Before we look at articles, it is important to understand that there are three types of nouns:

  • Singular countable
  • Plural countable
  • Uncountable (mass nouns)

In English, many physical things that we can see and touch are countable:

  • 2 chickens, 4 trees, 6 drinks

However, there are also many physical things that we consider to be uncountable:

  • Meat, wood, beer

We generally don’t say “1 meat, 2 meats”; we count meat in pieces: “1 piece of meat, 2 pieces of meat”, etc.

This means that in most contexts, uncountable nouns are not expressed in the plural form.

? I don’t eat meats.                     I don’t eat meat. ✓

? I like beers.                               I like beer. ✓

 

Beer_on_The_Beach

What about in your language? Which nouns are countable and which are uncountable?

Why are English articles (a/the) so difficult to use?

There are three articles in English: a(n), the, and Ø (no article).

Do you find them very difficult to use? They are one of the hardest areas of English grammar to master.

But never fear! I have the answer to this puzzle. And now you do, too. Here it is:

Singular count. noun Plural count. noun Uncount. noun
Definite reference the chicken the chickens the beer
Indefinite reference a chicken Ø chickens Ø beer
Generic reference a chicken

the chicken (rare)

Ø chickens Ø beer

This table is the key to using articles correctly. It shows the different functions of articles.

Articles are a class, but their function is not understood very well. One of the main problems is that there is no 1:1 relationship between an article and its function. This is why it is very difficult to generalize about the use of articles. It is more useful to look at how they function as referrers.

To understand how articles function, read on. I will explain the different functions of articles over four blogs:

Mastering articles part 1: Singular, Plural, and Uncountable nouns

Mastering articles part 2: Articles as Referrers

Mastering articles part 3: Generic and Indefinite Reference

Mastering articles part 4: Using articles correctly

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