You know what articles are: those three little words, a, an and the, that precede nouns. You know how to use them, at least in theory. But you may have trouble getting them just right or, if your native language has no articles, remembering to use them at all. In my first month coaching at the CUNY J-school, this has been the most common problem I’ve seen in the international students’ writing.
Articles come naturally to native speakers of English. The words may be little, but they’re crucial to sounding natural, whether you’re talking or writing. Without them, English sounds harsh, brusque and incomplete, like (forgive me, Russian friends!) Boris and Natasha in the old Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons. If you’ve never seen them, check YouTube.
A brief refresher:
The refers to a specific (noun), a or an to any (noun). In general, use a if the word that follows begins with a consonant sound, an if it begins with a vowel sound. The can be used for singular or plural, but a and an are always singular. The plural of a or an is no article at all.
Someone sent me a fruit basket!
Would you like an apple? (There’s more than one in the basket.)
I’d rather have the banana? (There’s only one.)
Did you buy bananas?
Where did you put the bananas you bought?
Notice how I said “consonant sound” and “vowel sound.” Sometimes we use a before a vowel — for example, “a usual procedure” — when the vowel begins with a consonant sound. (Usual sounds like you-sual, not ooh-sual.) We also use an before a consonant that is silent, as in an honor. (The British will talk about an historic event, even though the H is not silent.) Ease in speaking should be your guide: if it’s hard to say, it’s probably wrong. That’s why we say an apple, not a apple. Similarly, the is normally pronounced thuh but may become thee before a vowel sound, as in the event.
Not every noun requires an article. Nouns that can’t be counted never take a or an, though you can use the if talking about something specific. You may want to buy land to build a house, but once you’ve bought it, you build on the land. (Look for more examples in a future post.)
There are also specialized or local usages. In New York, it’s always the Bronx (as a noun, but: Bronx residents), never the Central Park.
How do you keep it all straight? Listen to your professors and classmates, practice and ask, via comment or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.