A is for Articles (1)

12 12 2009

It’s somewhat ironic that two of the most common words in the language – the and a – are also the hardest to explain. It’s not that we lack data – maybe there’s too much data and it’s impossible to see the wood for the trees. At any rate, the definite and indefinite article must win the prize for having the most nonsense written about them in coursebooks and student grammars.

Here’s how one upper intermediate coursebook (name withheld out of courtesy) explains the indefinite article:

“We use the indefinite article a when we are talking about a single countable noun in a general non-specific way or when we introduce it for the first time: There was a car outside the bank.”


This explanation conflates and confuses a number of facts. Starting with the second rule first, this is easily disproved in sentences like: “We decided to eat at a restaurant. The waiter showed us to a table….” The waiter is first mention, yet takes the definite article. And, while we’re at it, what about second mention? According to the coursebook rules, the second mention of a noun is definite, and takes the. Well, what about this: “The waiter showed us to a table. It was a small table, so we asked for another…”  Second mention but indefinite article! 

But more on the discourse function of articles in another post.

Let’s go back to the first rule: “We use the indefinite article a when we are talking about a single countable noun in a general non-specific way…”

Wrong.  The indefinite article can be used for general AND specific reference:

A tiger will bite if provoked = any tiger (generic reference, and indefinite)

A tiger bit me when I provoked it = specific tiger, although indefinite.


Compare also:

Is there a doctor on board? = any doctor, one of the class of doctors (generic, indefinite)

I sat next to a doctor on board. = a specific doctor (specific, indefinite)


(The ambiguity inherent in the indefinite article is exploited in jokes like: In (such-and-such-a-city) a person gets mugged every ten minutes. And he’s getting mighty sick of it!)

The definite article – the – can also be used for both generic and specific reference, but in either case, there is an assumption of shared knowledge:

The tiger hunts by night and sleeps by day = generic, definite

The tiger bit me! = specific, definite.


In other words, for both a and the, there are two parameters that intersect: specificity, and definiteness. And they are not the same thing.

Nouns in the plural can also have generic or specific reference, but only when indefinite – i.e. with zero article:

Tigers hunt by night and sleep by day = generic, indefinite

Tigers bit me = specific, indefinite


The tigers bit me  = specific (NEVER generic), definite


In other words, you can’t say the tigers to mean the class of tigers – a common learner error: *I like the cats. *The bananas are good for you, etc.

Now, why am I telling you all this?  Because I stupidly didn’t mention this in the A-Z. I completely omitted to point out that the generic-specific dimension operates across the definite-indefinite one. 

Next time round, I’ll include the following chart (where the examples with asterisks are non standard, where the sign Ø stands for the zero article, and where I’ve included non-count nouns as well):

  generic specific
definite She plays the violin.         

The whale is a mammal.

(*The whales are mammals.)

(*I like most types of the music.)

She played the violin I gave her.

Can you see the whale over there?

The violins are too loud.

I didn’t like the music in the film. 

indefinite Let’s give her a violin.

A whale cannot breathe underwater.

Ø Whales cannot breathe underwater.

I like most types of Ø music.

I saw a nice violin in town yesterday.

Captain Ahab was killed by a whale.

There are Ø whales in the Mediterranean.

Listen: I can hear Ø music!


Does that make any sense?



50 responses

12 12 2009
Vicky Loras

Hi Scott and congratulations on your blog! Nice to see you here!
How true, that the article can really cause a headache to both teachers and students. There are rules, but so many exceptions as you mention, that it is as if the rules do not even exist! Most of my students tend to learn them empirically in the end, that is, without even knowing, article plus noun come out as a chunk which has been imprinted in their minds after reading a lot of text or seeing those chunks many times.
Very interesting blogpost and can’t wait to see more!
Kind regards,

12 12 2009

Thanks Vicky – for being the first cab off the rank!
Yes, articles are a headache, and yes, I think in the end learners pick them up (or don’t!) through exposure, and not through the conscious application of rules.

I’m not sure that I agree there are “so many exceptions”. I think most instances of article use can be collapsed under a few “big” rules, and these hinge of the concept of specificity vs. generic-ness, countability vs. non-countability, and definiteness vs. indefiniteness (which I’ll be talking about in a subsequent post, when I look at how articles function in discourse).

The main exception, if you like, is that subset of zero article uses, of the type in bed, at work, at school, as well as the variable choices with proper nouns: London, but The Thames, etc. These are indeed a bit of a headache, and may need to be learned as lexical items in their own right.

12 12 2009
Nick Jaworski

I think last time I looked at Swan there were something like over 13 rules for just “the”.

I have found that simply correcting this with a visual cue when the mistake is made generally gets the students using it correctly. I rarely explain the rules, yet students seem to naturally pick it up over time. Not helpful from a methodological standpoint if you want to know why it works, but, hey, it does.

Also, like anything in English, there are always exceptions or further explanations necessary. A general rule is a good place to start and, as the other grey areas and additonal functions come up, you can go into those too. I try not to put to much emphasis on rules, so the students don’t fixate on them. I often feel that trying to find exact definitions for something like articles or the present perfect is simply more effort than it’s worth and usually only confuses students all the more.

13 12 2009

I often feel that trying to find exact definitions for something like articles or the present perfect is simply more effort than it’s worth and usually only confuses students all the more.

I totally agree, Nick. For the majority of learners, who are not professional linguists, the rules have little psychological reality. However, there are also those learners ( a minority I suspect), who both appreciate and apply rules. For the sake of these learners, it behoves us, as teachers and materials writers, to get the rules right!

12 12 2009
Karenne Sylvester

My take on the teaching of articles is to teach it only at the lower levels, sort of a generic wash over the subject, an intro… and then to leave it and allow them to get a sense of the use via contextual practice.

To go through a chart like the one above, while super for us teachers to see is simply going to add more confusion to the pot for our students… better to say to to them IMHO, listen to the following:

1. The whale is a mammal.
2. Whales are mammals.
3. A whale is the mammal.

tt2ss: Which feels like the correct version, in your gut?

1. Can you see the whale over there?
2. Can you see a whale over there?

tt2ss: What’s the difference in these two sentences – what would be the context – where are we, who are we talking to … when using 1 vs. 2?

13 12 2009


I totally agree – the chart is for us teachers: how you mediate that information is another thing altogether.

I love your two questions:

tt2ss: Which feels like the correct version, in your gut?

(because – like a lot of grammar teaching – it’s all about confirming or disconfirming intuitions, rather than attempting to apply thinly-understood rules)

tt2ss: What’s the difference in these two sentences – what would be the context – where are we, who are we talking to … when using 1 vs. 2?

(…and it’s all about language in context!)

10 out of 10, Ms Sylvester!

13 12 2009
Karenne Sylvester

Ta, I have a good teacher… he came up with something called dogme… there’s a book I can recommend, teaching unplugged?

12 12 2009
Marta Torres

Hello Scott! You are becoming a very prolific writer and I like to read your thoughts. This will surely be an excellent book when you finish writing it with all your friends here ont he blog.

I find the chart you have very practical – you remember yesterday I asked if you will write anything practical or it will all be for reference only? Well, now you have done it. This is very good. Monday I will copy and give to the other teachers for all our classes and I hope it solves all the problems with the articles.

Now I have a question – why do we call it ‘zero article’ when it is not an article whatsoever? Why do we name things in grammar which do not exist. Can you help me, please?

Are you enjoying your weekend? Marta :-)))))))))

13 12 2009

Why do we call it ‘zero article’ when it is not an article whatsoever?

Good question, Marta. The reason is this: when you use a noun in English (and many languages) you have a choice as to whether to modify it with some kind of determiner, e.g. a, the, some, no, any, one, my, etc. Each choice is determined by the way you want to identify the noun, and also by the nature of the noun itself (e.g. if it is countable or uncountable). That is to say, these choices are meaningul. You also have the option of not using a determiner at all – and this choice is also meaningful. It doesn’t signify an absence of meaning; it signifies a difference of meaning. Compare:

1. a. Kim went to the market and bought a chicken.
b. Kim went to the market and bought chicken.

2. a. I don’t like the music very much.
b. I don’t like music very much.

3. a. Tim went to the prison last week.
b. Tim went to prison last week.

In each instance of (b) the choice of not filling the article “slot” has a significant effect on meaning. So we need to “name” this absence, and that’s why we use the term “zero article”.

13 12 2009
Sara Hannam

Hi Scott,

Another interesting post! Will attempt to respond but now 3.00am in the morning. Having a bit of trouble sleeping so thought I’d turn my hand to this instead.

I like your chart and think it is useful for clarification on your original entry. I also agree that this area of grammar is not often dealt with well in coursebooks – when I used to use coursebooks and when I still have to use them sometimes now, I always feel that I have to explain further and use my own examples (infact there are so many areas of grammar like that aren’t there). Inevitably once the S’s started doing the exercises more questions arise which weren’t really covered in the ‘explanation’. Too much talk of rivers and mountains that always caused startled expressions!

I think I would add another area though – and that would be which ‘wrong’ uses etc. impede meaning of said sentence? With both my Greek and Balkan students (teach multi-nationality classes), there are different patterns in article use in English in writing, and for speed purposes (with advanced learners), I cannot comment on them all. I would welcome your thoughts about that as its an area I often think about. My reasons are that in a short EAP course which totals 48 hours in total, there is not a great deal of time to really focus on every point in detail, so much as to look at the overall flow of the language. I have read brilliant and insightful essays with almost no article at all too! So it is possible to exist without them…..though I am aware of my responsibility to help students gain access to things they might want to do i.e publish in journals, write complicated reports etc where these would be targetted as ‘mistakes’. I wonder what the English as a Lingua Franca research says about this for e.g.? (I know work on lexis and grammar still in progress). Perhaps should something be in your definition on this? Or not? Just a thought.

Some of the researchers I come into contact with at work from all over the world who are, in a sense, about as good as it gets with their brilliant command of English – many having lived in Anglophone settings, still make some ‘misakes’ in this area. Does that mean, in your opinion, that there is a ceiling on this? I find myself thinking that it is probably not worth devoting too much time on this with S’s who are already advanced, but what I would welcome is some better input at lower levels (though again, will that work?). And as I said, in my meaning driven mind, how do we separate the essential from the desirable?

No real answers, just questions!

13 12 2009

No real answers, just questions!

Good questions though, Sara. I remember hearing an interview with Rudolf Nureyev, whose English was fast, intelligible and idiomatic, but almost entirely article-free!

I also remember getting into a terrible mess in a class myself once when I gave the following gap-fill (which now seems both elitist and sexist in its content – but that’s another issue!) to a group of fairly advanced students , and asked them to complete it with the correct articles, either a/an, the or zero:

____ love of ____ opera is ____ mark of ____ civilised man.

Every student completed it differently, but almost always in a way that was acceptable. In trying to explain why each version was acceptable – but subtly different in meaning – I was left completely floundering!

Which is a long way of trying to answer your question: does it really matter?

I think – for academic writing – it probably does matter, in the sense that the definite article, in particular, plays an important role in textual cohesion, by flagging information that has been previously referred to, so that to misuse it or not use it might prejudice a reader’s ability to follow the argument. But this needs to be demonstrated!

13 12 2009
Emma Herrod

Hi Scott,

Following of from Sara’s (very good) comment considering English as a Lingua Franca, I was sure I had read something in Jenkins & Seidlhofer research about the very issue of article ‘errors’.

Here is the extract I was looking for:


“The objective here, then, would be to establish something like an index of communicative redundancy, in the sense that many of the niceties of social behaviour associated with native-speaker models and identities might not be operable and certain native-speaker norms might be seen to be in suspense. Indeed, it may well be that mutual accommodation (in the sense of Giles & Coupland 1991) will be found to have greater importance for communicative effectiveness than ‘correctness’ or idiomaticity in ENL terms. The potential for pedagogy would, as with Jenkins’ suggestions, reside in knowing which features
tend to be crucial for international intelligibility and thus should be taught for production and reception, and which (‘non-native’) features tend not to cause misunderstandings and thus do not need to constitute a focus in the teaching for production. As Jenkins puts it,

“There is really no justification for doggedly persisting in referring to an item as ‘an error’ if the vast majority of the world’s L2 English speakers produce and understand it”. (Jenkins 2000:160)

Of course, it is early days yet and no reliable findings based on quantitative investigations can be reported at this stage. But even a quick analysis of a few dialogues suffices to point to some hypotheses. For instance, typical learners’ ‘errors’ which most English teachers would consider in urgent need of correction and remediation, and which consequently often get allotted a great deal of time and effort in EIL lessons, appear to be generally unproblematic and no obstacle to communicative success. Such ‘errors’ include:

· ‘dropping’ the third person present tense –s,
· ‘confusing’ the relative pronouns who and which,
· ‘omitting’ definite and indefinite articles where they are obligatory in
native speaker language use
· failing to use ‘correct’ forms in tag questions (e.g. isn’t it? or no? instead of shouldn’t they?)


A lot of writers have referenced Jenkins’ ‘doggedly’ accusation haven’t they? But I can’t help feeling in my gut that there is truth in what she writes. If there is no real loss in communication, is it worth the blood sweat and tears?

I’m inclined to agree with you both. In some academic and business contexts, omission of such items might be considered mistakes. I tend to judge it according to each student. I had one Croatian student who in the true Southern Slavic style, had great difficulty with the concept of articles. It represented a kind of personal achievement which she needed to conquer in order to feel she had mastered the English language. As she was a very academically-minded, I actually discussed some of this research with her and printed some information out about learner errors. It did help to slightly manage her expectations and meant that she didn’t expect me to be focussing on one and a half hours of the definite and indefinite article every week over the next six months.

She liked rules and to satisfy this need of hers, she had a table such as the one you posted Scott. However, we looked at the issue as it arose in texts and conversation. This seemed to be more enjoyable for her (and dare I say it, more interesting for me).

I do however thanking the heavens the first time I read Jenkins’ and Seidlhofer’s work 🙂

Best wishes,

13 12 2009
Alice M

To answer your last question, Scott “does it really matter” ? well I think it does. As you are a native speaker of English, I understand this may be a detail to you. But to lots of learners, it is not, because really getting into a language means getting into other ways of categorizing the world. And that’s why we are passionate about languages! Your chart and Karenne’s examples show it perfectly : what do articles say about “slicing” the world ? And as Sara wrote, what do I say when I use the “wrong” article? what is the difference? I want to grasp this tiny difference too. It is also about culture. We are mad about grammar in France, and so are my German, Swiss and Japanese students. This is how they’ve been educated, how they have built ways to grasp a language before even trying to speak it. So this has to be taken into account too. I can very well stop in the middle of a dogme lesson to give out a chart like yours : because I know it will be reassuring, and reassurance is a good frame for learning.

14 12 2009
Nick Jaworski

“reassurance is a good frame for learning.”

I think you make a really good point here Alice. I have trouble with this line myself quite often. I want to get my students away from obsessing over grammar, but at the same time it is what they are used to, what they usually prefer, and it makes them comfortable.

13 12 2009

I try (and I do mean ‘try’) to teach this as a logical problem. If the listener or reader knows exactly which one or thing you are talking or writing about, use ‘the’; if not, use ‘a’.

It’s not perfect, but I think it’s worth approaching the subject not as a grammar problem, but as one of logic and communication.

I can’t say I’m always successful, but I’m not perfect by a long way!

13 12 2009

I think it’s worth approaching the subject not as a grammar problem, but as one of logic and communication.

Nicely put, Sandy. Your rule of thumb for the articles is pretty good (although it may need to find some room for the countable/non-countable distinction). The concept of ‘definiteness’ is something I want to take up in another thread, so I won’t say more on that now.

But I might add that one could go further and say that many (all?) grammar problems are a question (if not of logic) of communication. That is to say, grammar choices are contingent on the communicative needs and intentions of speakers/listeners and readers/writers, as realised in the evolving discourse. This is why it’s impossible (without any context) to judge the grammaticality of sentences like “I like the music” or “Sandy’s in the prison”.

13 12 2009
Emma Herrod

I also woke up with a cracking headache and shouldn’t post things in academic circles where my integrity is at stake at such times. Apologies for the flurry of typing errors. You knew what I meant – and I take it no loss in communication occurred ‘a la Jenkins’ 🙂


13 12 2009

Hi Emma.

(I corrected one or two typos in your previous post, but then seem no longer able to reply to it directly, so I’ll reply to this one instead).

Thanks for raising the EIL /lingua franca issue: I had forgotten that Jenkins had included articles in her list of “not that important for inter-NNS intelligibility” and I wonder if that was a hunch on her part, or whether she has evidence. As I said to Sara, it needs to be demonstrated that the absence or misuse of articles causes communication breakdown – but I also like Alice’s point that articles contribute to the way we “slice up” the world and therefore have an important bearing on the way our identity is both projected and interpreted. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that I’m not alone in finding statements like ‘I like the football very much’ totally transparent and unambiguous.

13 12 2009
Sara Hannam

Scott, Emma and all,

Emma it would seem strange if you were to be penalised for your ‘errors’ in the light of what you have posted about Jenkins and Seidlhofer’s research so no criticism from me. Blogging is a fast business and sometimes we don’t have the time to check our language so I’ll forgive you if you forgive me! I am also much relieved about entry of ELF into ELT which is why I raised it.

I think there is a very important point at the centre of it which is about required versus desired goals. So much grammar teaching seems focus much more on the second (which are, it would seem, mostly based on NEST models). What is required for successful communication on the other hand, either written or spoken (if meaning driven) is a whole different ball game. I also think the reaction to the research needs to be tempered with the fact it assumes a paradigm change in teaching aims and goals for EL, and that is bound to ruffle some feathers at all levels of ELT! I really like Jenkins work on accent and identity (her forte of course being pronuniciation patterns and ELF), and I believe Seidlhofer is in the process of collecting data for a corpus of ELF lexico-grammar which will add further info the increasing amount available (following the initial and very poignant findings you list above when you consider how much time is invested on those grammar points in course books and lesson time).

I guess my point was that maybe any entries about grammar these days need to take that into account. But should that be done with the as-you-go-along approach or in a separate entry in the A-Z on ELF. Its a difficult one and luckily I don’t have to decide as it’s Scott’s call! In my own work, I tend to embed those new developments into everything, at least at the level of questioning existing terms and their current instability. It remains the case that I help my students achieve their goal (which may be the need, in academic writing, to demonstrate high fluency and accuracy in NEST terms) but allowing plenty of space for questioning the legitimacy of this and how it marginalises, for example, non-NEST researchers in the publication world (who cannot reach those ‘standards’).

Thanks Scott for pointing out however that there *is* a difference between writing and speaking in this respect in the fact that those ‘errors’ will be much more noticeable and therefore penalisable in written communication (i.e. academic or otherwise). And I agree that showing learners how articles might ‘disturb’ the flow for the writer is helpful. I am going back to my lessons to have another look!

Thanks to you all for a great thread again.

13 12 2009
Jason Renshaw

Interesting stuff, Scott, and I daresay this subject of articles is likely to get a lot of attention. The amount of times I’ve had learners or teachers in training beg me for a complete description and clear set of rules… I’ve also had the (mis)fortune of having to focus on articles in a couple of different units in my coursebook series, and it made for some serious squirming in the writer’s chair, I can tell you!

I like Karenne’s approach mentioned above:
1. Provide some general broad game rules and deal with the rest through actually playing the game
2. Encouraging learners to develop a ‘gut feeling’ for how to use articles

This also got me thinking about my wife’s English (she’s Korean). She’s had very little formal instruction in English, and found grammar units dealing with articles seriously baffling. I’ve avoided the “here are the rules” approach with her, corrected her (mildly, mind, she’s my wife after all!) with a simple explanation and comparison here or there, and I have to say that her use of them these days is pretty much spot on. It’s certainly better than most coursebook-trained students, and I think it’s because she’s had a rich array of real context-based experiences with using articles and taken on English as a series of ‘chunks’. Gradually her interlanguage has taken them on board, sorted them out, and got them in something resembling solid working order. BUT (with respect to some points made above), it’s definitely true that her accuracy with articles in speaking contrasts quite markedly with her use of them in writing. It’s almost as if, the more time a learner has to think about when and how to use an article, the greater chance it will be used incorrectly…

Rather than hands-on or hands-off approaches when it comes to teaching articles, I think “soft hands” are the real key.

Great reading here – thanks!

~ Jason

13 12 2009

Hi Jason,
Thanks for your post. I was struck by this comment:

…it’s definitely true that [my wife’s] accuracy with articles in speaking contrasts quite markedly with her use of them in writing. It’s almost as if, the more time a learner has to think about when and how to use an article, the greater chance it will be used incorrectly…
I wonder if anyone else has encountered this phenomenon – and is it purely an article thing, or does it extend to other elusive areas of the grammar, such as tense and aspect?

13 12 2009

All fascinating stuff. The ELF school is really going to upset the apple-cart. And about time!

I am used to working in an environment in which inaccurate use is almost always punished irrespective of what the English in question is being used for. This is particularly the case when it comes to ‘English that students write’, which is simply anything that a student writes on a piece of paper whether it be a dialogue (when an article error, for example, is often no barrier whatsoever to effective communication), a question to test their use of the article (for which context??!!) or (finally a real world writing task!) academic writing.

If nothing else, we do our students a grave disservice by giving the impression that accuracy is always the overriding goal to be achieved.

Fluency always seems to be the poor cousin. But then it’s easier to grade for accuracy!

13 12 2009
Dominic Cole


Having unfollowed you on tweeter. Here I am back. Anyone destroying the first reference/second reference nonsense can self-promote all they want.

Just a couple of quickies. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve taken to treating articles as a matter of student self-correction as opposed to teaching/presentation and also I tend to treat it largely as a matter of written language as opposed to speech, not least given the vagaries of pronunciation and the unstressed “a”.

Looking at it from the viewpoint of student self-correction, I’m aiming for an internalised toolkit SS can carry around with them. Again, I’m entirely with you when you say that the irregularities can typically be reduced to a few big rules. This seems to help in the error-correction process.

I like your breakdown between the definite and the specific for the teacher. However. I might well be missing something here, but for me in terms SS making choices it only really bites in terms of the indefinite/specific category, “I saw a nice violin in town” needs “a” and not “the” and the generic/definite category where “the whale is a mammal” . Otherwise, it is still possible to rely on a general/specific analysis. So my solution has been to ask SS to consider the indefinite/specific as being a “general” usage by simply expanding the concept of what is general. Likewise, “the whale” is to be thought of as being a general concept.

With this in mind the table I present to SS looks somewhat like this:

countable uncountable

general a chair 0 weather
(the chair)

specific the chair the weather
the chairs

It certainly isn’t 100%, but it never fails to surprise me how well (especially with some flexible thinking) this deals with the intricacies of the articles. It asks SS to think of 2 questions: “Am I talking generally or specifically?” “Am I using the noun countably or uncountably?”Typically, it seems to eliminate up to 90% of errors – which is good enough for me!

Alternatively, you can look at the table and say
1. if the noun is being used countably, there must be something (a, the ___s) or
2. if you are talking specifically you need “the”.

13 12 2009

Hi Dominic – thanks for your post.

I take your point that “splitting” the choices between specific/generic, on the one hand, and definite/indefinite, on the other, may not – in the end – help learners tease out the different choices available. At the same time, collapsing all uses of the into the ‘specific’ category, while excluding all uses of a, rather dilutes the meaning of ‘specific’. Why, for example, is the NP in sentence 2 below more specific than in sentence 1?:

1. A friend of mine, called Tom, who works in a canning factory, got married last month.
2. The friend of mine you met last week, Tom, got married last month.

In both cases, the ‘friend’ is very thoroughly specified.

As for the point about the phonological sublety, this is borne out in the ongoing argument as to whether Neil Armstrong really did say one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind – or not!

13 12 2009

Testing out your chart (guess we are at liberty to come back to you on that):
Think these are OK:

The food in Spain is wonderful. –Definite Specific
Food in Spain is never a problem! — Indefinite Generic

However, not sure about these:

The students at this university wouldn’t agree with you — Definite Specific
Students at this university wouldn’t agree with you. — Indefinite Specific

What I can’t do is find a really important difference between them.
Is the first one actually English? Or is this interference from Spanish?
Desperately searching for a context which would make one of them inappropriate.

13 12 2009

Hi Glennie,
I agree with your analysis (using the definite/specific criteria). My interpretation of your second set of sentences is this:

The students at this university wouldn’t agree with you = all the students

Students at this university wouldn’t agree with you. = not necessarily all of the students

But I’m none the wiser how the definite/specific criteria account for this difference in meaning. Anyone?

13 12 2009

I’m not sure about the ‘not necessarily all of the students’ interpretation. In other words, I’m not sure that I would reject that formulation if I wanted to refer to all the students.
If I said ‘People in Spain are …’, I would be referring to all Spaniards. I would then insert the word ‘tend’ if told that I was overgeneralising.

13 12 2009
Carol Goodey

Wouldn’t this set of sentences be similar to the examples you give in your post about tigers?

Tigers bit me = specific, indefinite
The tigers bit me = specific (NEVER generic), definite


The students at this university… specific, definite
Students at this university… specific, indefinite

With the second being indefinite, it is not expected that we know which students and so not necessarily all of them.

14 12 2009

I go along with Carol’s analysis, viz:

The students at this university… specific, definite
Students at this university… specific, indefinite

With the second being indefinite, it is not expected that we know which students and so not necessarily all of them.

And that reminds me of the semantic tussle that occurred during one of the endless rounds of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians (I think) when what was on the table was an offer by the former “to cede territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 war” while the Palestinians wanted the wording to read “to cede the territories occupied by Israel etc”. That is to say, the addition of the definite article, along with the post-modification, implied all rather than just some.

13 12 2009

I hope it’s not one of those super-woolly ‘it depends how the speaker sees the students’ situations! :->

13 12 2009


In my experience, it doesn’t extend to tense / aspect. But I think that aspect is one of those areas that is difficult at intermediate and below levels anyway. PET level students frequently trot out “I’ve been learning English for X years” as a chunk, but unable to use the pres perf cont in a different context. They might be able to perform a (written) past simple – present perfect transformation sentence (knowing what is expected of them through exam training) but not able to recognise the same rules when they speak.

14 12 2009

My wife’s the opposite, regarding this…

…it’s definitely true that [my wife’s] accuracy with articles in speaking contrasts quite markedly with her use of them in writing. It’s almost as if, the more time a learner has to think about when and how to use an article, the greater chance it will be used incorrectly…

The missus usually leaves them out entirely or pops them in where they intrude when she’s speaking, but her written work is more ‘composed’ and she usually gets them right. I guess with the extra time she has to think, she finds the correct way to express herself.

And I’ve told her she talks too fast SO many times now!

14 12 2009
Jason Renshaw

That is so interesting, Sandy, and I wonder how much of it has to do with the way they learned their English. First languages may play a role as well, or (and this is what I’m REALLY interested in finding out) this is further evidence that my wife truly is an ENIGMA!

9 03 2010

Just wondering about this example from a student’s work today:

‘I would love to work in an agricultural co-operative in Andalucia. I’d visit the farmers…’

Now, the use of the definite article (definite-specific) should suggest, I think, that the reader is assumed to know that farmers would work in that agricultural co-op.

But what about ‘I’d visit farmers’? The student asked me, ‘Would this be better?’ Well, obviously it’s not about ‘better’. But what would the absence of the definite article suggest? That the reader would not necessarily know that farmers would work in that co-op? (Doesn’t sound convincing. But surely the absence of the article is supposed to say something about the reader not being assumed to know something?) Or would it – and I think this sounds more convincing – suggest that the student would simply visit farmers (indefinite specific) whilst not saying anything about whether or not they would be members of the co-op.

A toughie for me. But having got to the end, I can see that my problem is my attempt to accommodate the assumed (or not) reader knowledge issue.

9 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Glennie, zero article before ‘farmers’ would simply suggest that the writer, by not ‘pointing’ at any farmers in particular, is leaving it open as to which farmers these are – your second hypothesis, in fact. That’s my reading at least!

10 03 2010

Thanks Scott.
I guess there’s also an interesting point here too about speaker intention. The speaker could be leaving it open simply because s/he doesn’t know or because, for some reason, it is in his interest to leave it vague. And that, strangely enough, sounds very much like the explanation that is often given for the following use of the subjunctive in Spanish, which you will be familiar with: Vamos a un bar donde no haya tanto ruido.
Anyway, I shall refrain from further using the A-Z as a ‘Help with Grammar’ site. I can imagine you don’t want it turning into that!

10 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Glennie, no – don’t go! Besides, this issue of deliberate vagueness on the part of the speaker/writer – as encoded in the zero article – has a political/critical/legal dimension, as when – for example – Israel offers to “give back Occupied Territories”, whereas the Palestinians insist on a definite article. Whole peace talks have foundered on the refusal of the Israelis to concede “the”.

10 03 2010

No intention of leaving.
Addicted to this blog, and happy to be so.

10 03 2010
Jason Renshaw

Just checked back on this thread – amazing and intriguing stuff!

Thanks for being so willing to share and keep discussing, probing, testing, Scott. The example you gave about the Israelis refusing to concede the article in a treaty just blew me away. To think that some teachers actually say “articles aren’t important really – communication is fine whether they’re used or not used (correctly)”…


~ Jason

7 02 2013
Ratnavathy (@Ratnavathy)

Dear Scott,

What a thought-provoking article, I caught myself nodding on several occasions. However, as Karenne mentioned above, as teachers we’d be able to understand the above, but how do we deliver it to learners as to not confuse them? Articles are usually introduced to learners at a lower proficiency level, and this makes the task even more challenging.

I’m not sure if this is the right thing to do, but it might help to clearly explain or make learners aware in some way that English, is, a language, and in that sense, one cannot completely govern it by hard and fast grammatical rule. If learners are aware of that, it might be for them to get a bigger picture rather than constraining their understanding based on specific rules.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, would love to get some input from you.


7 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Ratna, for your comment. In the end, I don’t think that ‘hard and fast grammatical rules’ (as you put it) are going to work with the majority of learners (in this area of grammar or most!) but what might work is studying examples in context and trying to work what the difference in meaning is. Or having students devise contexts in which ‘minimal pair’ sentences might fit – e.g. ‘Did you order a pizza?’ vs ‘Did you order the pizza?’

9 10 2014
Joe Teacher

Regarding “a long line” in the following exchange:

Joe says: Hi, Sandy, there’s a long line at the grocer’s.

(‘long line’ is specific; Joe can see it. And I can accept ‘long line’ = as indefinite, although once the word is out, ‘long line’ is no longer indefinite. (It is now part of “the shared world of the speakers,” as you say in Post 2 on articles.) So what happens to ‘long line’ in the following response by Sandy?

Sandy: Joe, it’s 7am, what’s a long line doing at the grocer’s?

Joe just mentioned ‘long line,’ so is it the case that (1) ‘long line’ is specific [it is in the world, and Sandy is now referencing it] and (2) ‘long line’ is definite, because Sandy expects Joe to know which long line that Sandy means; after all, Joe just mentioned it! So you have the article ‘a’ with specific, definite??!!

Or, if you say, Sandy is reverting back to talking about a generic ‘long line’ (not the specific one Joe just mentioned–although how that could be bends the mind), then it *must* be indefinite (‘A long line’) since all generic indefinites are, by your chart*/by definition*/according to the rules*, unknown to the hearer? Help me understand.

Logically, if not “grammatically,” Sandy’s ‘a long line’ = ‘that’ specific long line Joe just mentioned.’

And we recall that ‘that’ is more definite than ‘the’…

22 03 2016

What a useful discussion on such a difficult grammar point! I have a question to Scott and everybody who has an idea why in the following phrase we use an article: “we waited for an additional ten minutes.” The noun ‘minutes’ is in plural.

2 04 2016

hi Susanna

1. we waited for 10 minutes
2. we waited for an additional 10 minutes

the speaker in 1 may not be concerned about the wait time whereas in 2 they are concerned about the wait time and so +specifies+ this by marking it with an a. that is the speaker in 2 clearly wants to make the waiting time +noteworthy+ and hence specific.

does that make sense?

4 04 2016
Scott Thornbury

My take is slightly different. Basically, the addition of ‘an’ turns what follows into a singular countable item: compare: I’ll have icecream; I’ll have an icecream. So, in the case of ‘an additional ten minues’, ten minutes is being viewed, not as ten separate minutes, but as a singular, countable stretch of time, almost like a partitive structure, e.g. ‘a number of minutes’. Compare: We hiked ten miles vs We hiked an extra ten miles. He paid her ten pounds. vs. He paid her an additional ten pounds. (This may also account for the fact that ‘less’ is preferred to ‘fewer’, even by pedants, when talking about distance time and money: It’s ten less miles if you take the ring road; I work less hours than my boss, etc,). (But I can’t find anything in the grammar books to confirm this hunch!)

4 04 2016

apparently some people have called this “funky a” : 0
there is some info here http://english-jack.blogspot.fr/2008/07/clarification-on-obligatory-adjectives.html
and here http://email.eva.mpg.de/~gil/numerals/abstracts/Ionin.pdf

13 04 2016

I think Scott’s response has well clarified Susanna’s question – and mine as well!

I used to have the same query when I encountered a sign in my apartment: THESE ARE A NO SMOKING PREMISES. This was absolutely strange for me, as I have always been taught that “a” is followed by a singular noun, and the pronoun accompanied must be “this”. Well, did the landlord make a mistake in typing this?

Now I have learnt that the place I live in has lots of apartments, therefore it has the plural form in “premises”, yet it is considered ONE building, then it goes as “a” premises. Once again, it consists of several aparments, so it is preceded by “these are”, which goes with plural nouns.

At first it was confusing but now things seem clear. Now that I have just received an email from MCFC with the title “All the reaction as City progress to the semi-finals!”, I know that the verb is “progress” but not “progresses” because City is ONE team with MANY players!

5 04 2016

‘Nothing but the dog in me’ Dog is usually countable but uncountable in this case (the stuff or quality(s) of a dog). Generic quality of a ‘dog’ and definate? Specific and definate?

13 04 2016

Thanks everyone for replying. Theoretically, Scott’s and Duy’s explanations make sense, and are very helpful. In practice though it is confusing.
I am surprised that the English language hasn’t “simplified” this issue like it has done with so many other grammar issues, got rid of a grammatical gender, for instance.

10 09 2019

I suppose articles really aren’t a problem for ‘native’ speakers until we try to explain them. I like the music, when speaking about preference, is a common mistake of learners of English, but a native would never say it in that way and we did, it would be implicit that we were talking about specific music – I hated film, but I liked the music. etc. Phonetically, I suppose too, that because saying something like ‘a apple’ is far more difficult to pronounce than ‘an apple’, there is never any danger of it being made redundant for the same reason grammatical gender was i.e. the path of least resistance.

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