Articles revisited

“What’s missing here?” you’ve heard me demand, tapping my blue felt-tip on a space between words in your copy. Sometimes, the answer is dead silence; sometimes, “Article?” Sometimes you even say the right one.

A semester after The articles article, students are still coming to me confused about articles.  That’s OK; as I mentioned in that post, English articles are really hard for non-native speakers  to get straight, especially those whose languages have none. A quick review:

A for any (noun): Would you like a banana? 

An for any (noun starting with a vowel sound): I’d rather have an apple.

The for a specific or only (noun): I’ll take the orange.

A and an are always singular; the can be used with singular or plural. (The pronunciation usually changes before a vowel sound: thee rather than the, as in the orange.)

And sometimes no article is needed at all. For example: “English is not my cup of the tea.” First, not my cup of tea is an idiom, describing something you dislike or would prefer to avoid. Second, tea requires no article unless you’re referring to specific tea: Would you like a cup of the tea I bought today? So no article.

Sometimes articles are part of idioms — for example, in bed: I was sick in bed all day (not in the bed).

We say in school and out of school: Will the kids be in school on Monday? Or: I‘ve been out of school for years (meaning I graduated or otherwise completed my education). In a general sense, kids go to school and you are in graduate school, but you attend the CUNY journalism school.    

When Americans are sick, they go to the hospital; the British simply go to hospital. Similarly, British undergraduates go to university; after they graduate, they may reminisce, “When I was at university . . .”  As undergrads, Americans go to college or are in college, even if they attend a university. (Side trip into prepositions: you are a student at the CUNY J-school, not in or of.)

If you’re in the business concentration here, you sometimes write about companies that are in the red — not in red, as a student recently wrote — or in the black. (But sometimes a company will turn a profit in time to avoid bankruptcy — maybe because its employees come to work on time.) Another students wrote about “the U.S. trade relations.” No article needed there.

Finally, New York reporters like you need  to know your geography. Only one borough — the Bronx — takes an article.  Neighborhoods are a little trickier. In Manhattan, we have Lower Manhattan, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood, among others.  But: the Lower East Side, the Upper West Side, the East Side. Washington Heights is the Heights for short, much like the Village.

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