An indefinite article about the definite article


Learners of English will agree there are a multitude of different grammar pitfalls ready and waiting to trap them. If they don’t have a problem with the tenses, it will be prepositions, punctuation or one of the many confusing rules about adjectives and adverbs. Ask any student which mistake they make the most, they’ll probably come up with one of these. And yet, while they’re certainly common errors, there’s one that’s probably made more than all of them put together. But no one thinks of it – that is, not unless they happen to come from a country that doesn’t use them. Yes, you’ve probably guessed from the title by now: it’s the thorny issue of when and how to use our awkward little definite article ‘the.’

Often referred to as a determiner, the definite article has an impressive list of uses, but essentially it always relates to nouns. In general, it tells us when a noun is particular, specific, or, as its name implies, definite. But why should it give users so many problems? After all, pretty much all western European languages use their own equivalents of ‘the.’ Even so, teachers will agree that almost everyone makes mistakes with the use of definite articles somewhere along the way.

There are actually several reasons why they’re so difficult for English as a second language (ESL)  learners, so here are some of them:

First language omission
To dispose of this most obvious one first, many languages don’t have articles, as the idea of something being definite or indefinite is often built into the form of the noun they use. Most eastern European languages don’t include them, and neither do the majority of Asian languages. When they aren’t part of your fundamental grammar system, it must be incredibly difficult to understand the concept of an article. And to then decide whether the noun being used is indefinite or definite (whatever that’s supposed to mean) must be a nightmare. Oddly enough, most students get the hang of ‘a/an’ eventually, but the reason we need ‘the’ seems to elude them.

The countable vs uncountable conundrum
When learning English, ESL students are introduced to those nouns we consider to be uncountable. These are things like substances (bread, milk etc.), concepts (experience, advice) and anything of an abstract nature. We can’t divide such things into parts, or at least we can’t from an English perspective, which means they follow the corresponding English rules. Uncountable nouns like ‘happiness’ and ‘society’ are classed as concepts, so unless talking about a specific person’s happiness or a particular society, we don’t use articles with them. Unfortunately for the learners, their languages do. The result is that we often hear constructions like ‘I am looking for the happiness,’ or ‘this issue is part of life in the society.’  To a native speaker’s ears, it all sounds very strange and quite funny too.

Possessiveness and more
Another problem with the definite article arises when phrases of possession are being used. Grammatically, the construction is called the ‘genitive’ form and it has wide usage in academic English where noun phrases are used quite extensively. The problem here is that in ninety percent of cases, a genitive phrase will refer to something specific and if countable nouns are used, the definite article is essential. An example of such a phrase is ‘the result(s) of our research.’ Regardless of whether ‘result’ is singular or plural, we have to use ‘the’ because it’s our research, which makes the result specific. Unfortunately, many students fail to do so, not realising that a) the noun phrase involves a countable noun, and b) it is now specific. This compound issue means that corrections to their papers are frequently littered with inserted articles. Of all the errors academic writers make, this failure to use ‘the’ in their genitive noun phrases is quite possibly number one in the top ten.

The exceptions that don’t prove anything, let alone the rules
What other mistakes do ESL learners make? In fairness to the students, I think it’s true to say that for every rule, there is an exception, and sometimes more than one. There are of course guidelines for using definite articles. You know the ones: the second time a countable noun is mentioned in a text, or when a noun is considered a unique item, such as the sun, the moon etc., or when referring to something specific. However, there are many situations where we would expect to use them and then don’t.

For instance, we talk about ‘parliament’ without a ‘the’, but ‘the government’ generally has one. Both are deemed to be unique when speaking, but for some unknown reason the word ‘parliament’ doesn’t need an article and ‘government’ does. Figure that one out!

Another point of confusion is the names of universities. They vary depending on whether they use genitive phrases or not, e.g. we talk about Erasmus University (no ‘the’), but the University of Amsterdam (with ‘the). Place names are also a minefield: Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace in London never have ‘the’ in front of them except when they’re being used as adjectives, i.e. the Buckingham Palace guards. By the way, this rule applies to all place names, but it’s sometimes unclear to students that a building may be perceived as a place. It’s also unclear that names of places can be used as adjectives, so double the trouble

Tripping over the obstacles
There are more oddities too, so it’s something of an obstacle course for learners and a surprising challenge given how small the word is and how insignificant it appears to be. Suffice to say that if you omit your articles your English will sound strangely abbreviated. Conversely, add them where they’re not needed and your language will seem quaint and even childish. In the end, and whichever mistake you make, it will inevitably be noticed much more than so small a word deserves.

  • Valerie Poore - LTC - 2019

    Valerie Poore was born and raised in England but later moved to South Africa where she gained experience in Marketing and Communications, both as a practitioner and as a trainer. She returned to Europe in 2001 and has been working for the Language and Training Centre (EUR) as a freelance teacher and trainer since 2002. During this time, she gained her Master’s in TESOL, specializing in English for academic purposes. Valerie currently teaches writing skills to both business and academic students. In addition, she writes articles for magazines, as well as publishing her own books.