I was talking to a student named Bartek after a lesson one evening about a flat screen TV that I was interested in buying. He was quite knowledgeable and talked me through all the pros and cons of the different models. Finally he told me the best value for money based on my financial budget.
At the next lesson I was chatting with the group before the lesson and I told them: “On the weekend I bought a flat screen TV.” I was quite proud. Then Bartek arrived just on time and I said to him, “Oh hey, Bartek, on the weekend I bought the flat screen TV.” Now these two sentences look almost completely the same but they differ by only a single word.
“I bought a TV”
“I bought the TV.”
What is even more interesting for me is that these two sentences could conceivably be translated into one sentence in Polish.
Quantifiers (Book…which book?)
A/an/the/ , the zero article and in some cases ‘some’ are called determiners in English and are a subset of something we call quantifiers in language. Quantifiers answer the question ’which one?’ and include such words as the numerals (1,2,3,4..) this, that, my, her, some/ any. Every language has quantifiers for the purpose of identifying which noun we are talking about.
Imagine a person running hysterically into a classroom and shouting ‘Book!!” The only question on anyone’s mind would be: which book?
Now imagine if a person ran hysterically into a classroom and shouted “My book!!” Well the question of which book has been answered and now we are left wondering other things. For example, what happened to this guy’s book?
That is the nature of articles as similarly demonstrated in the initial anecdote. I was able to say, “I bought the TV.” Because Bartek and I had a shared knowledge of which TV I was talking about. He knew which one. The class (minus Bartek) had no previous knowledge of the TV and did not know which one.
A/An have an etymological relationship with the word ‘one’ and in many other languages that use the indefinite article they will even be the same word. French un/une means quite literally ‘one’ as does the German ein /eine. It also suggests an indefinite meaning in so far as it doesn’t determine any specific thing, just a thing in a general sense.
I have a sister. (one)
I have a car. (one)
I like to ask speakers of Slavic languages to translate these sentences and then ask them what happened to ‘a’? How did they translate it?
‘The’ can refer to both plural and singular nouns but has this definitive nature of suggesting that there is a shared knowledge of which noun(s) we are talking about. This can be done in several ways.
The waiter at the restaurant last night was terrible. (cataphoric reference – looking forward)
I bought a green bag and a red one but the green bag is for my sister. (anaphoric reference- looking back)
The weather is really nice. (shared experience)
I bought a house and the garden is amazing. (inference)
The zero article is used in plural cases where an/a could be used in the singular because it is not definitive and just suggests the general sense of the nouns.
I love (-) books.
(-) Strawberries contain a lot of vitamin C (not ‘the strawberries’)
On a few rare occasions the word ‘some’ serves the same purpose as an article.
I bought some grapes (a quantifier)
So I met some guy at the party. (an article)
As a kind of review consider the following sentences.
1. Have you seen the dog?
2. Have you seen my dog?
3. Have you seen a dog?
4. Have you seen Dog? (A nickname?)
A. Which would you say to your neighbour who also has a dog?
B. To your sister as you sat on the sofa at home?
C. To your friends at school?
D. To a stranger walking through your neighbourhood?
Answers: 1-B 2-A 3-D 4-C
Here is a final thought about the complex nature of the articles. They are very difficult to learn especially for Slavic language speakers who do not have articles in their languages. But even learners who do have extensive experience with articles from their mother language must realize that the rules will sometimes differ.
My brother is great! In Italian this would be: Il mio fratello e grande! (literally: the my brother is great!)
In 1921 Edward Sapir noted “All grammars leak” suggesting that certain exceptions inevitably crop up and things fall through the cracks in some cases.
“We went the wrong way.” Could there not have been infinite numbers of wrong ways and so this was just a wrong way?
“It is a most beautiful day.” Isn’t the superlative always with ‘the’?
Geographical names are always a mystery. Why should it be The Baltic Sea but Lake Victoria?
Nevertheless the best approach for becoming an expert on English article is to expose yourself to as much linguistic corpora as you can. Extensive reading and contact with article usage is essential. Hunt down examples and seek out the exceptions in order to demystify them and make them your friends.
*A lot of the substance of this blog was inspired by a session I attended at the Brighton IATEFL 2018 given by Mr. Jonathon Marks. It was very awareness-raising as I hope this blog has been for you.
Do you have any hot tips for learning articles in English? Let us know in the comment section below.