Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lessons post. This week we are looking at how to use articles in English. Our Lunchtime Lessons are are free Online English classes where we look at areas of English which are often difficult for students.
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How to use articles in English
But also in your writing, for example, they really stand out if you get them wrong. So we want to think about working with articles for accuracy, not really for communication purposes, and especially if you want to get an exam qualification. So that’s that’s what we’re thinking about here with articles today.
Before we start, we have got three questions here. So I want us to think about when we use the indefinite article, when we use the definite article and when we use the zero article. See if you can remember when to use the indefinite article. So that means like “a banana”. What am I going to use the definite article for, like “the man who’s sitting in the chair”, and when do I use the zero article? So that’s when I will not use an article like “bananas are great”.
We’re going to look at each of these three and think about the most common reasons that we’re using an article.
How to use the indefinite article in English
We use the indefinite article with countable nouns. So, “I have a car, he owns a house, she bought a book”, but I wouldn’t say “I have a money“. I’d have to say “I have some money” because money is countable.
Can anyone tell me when we use A and when we use AN? It’s not actually to do with spelling , it’s to do with sounds. When it’s a consonant sound, we use A. But when it’s a vowel sound we use AN. So that’s why we have “a university”, because if you look at that, it actually begins with a consonant sound. And when it is a vowel sound like “x-ray” , because it begins with an /e/, we’d say AN as well. It’s a little thing, just watch for that.
How to use the definite article in English
How to use the zero article in English
- “I like football”. – the sport.
- “Men and women are equal” – all of them.
- “People believe that English is important” – everybody.
If I was being specific, then I would need to use the definite article. If I say “I like the football” I’m not talking about the sport. I’m talking about the actual ball. If I say “the men and the women of this country are equal”, that’s because I’m being specific to this country. But if I want to generalize, I don’t need to use my article. Be really careful because this is where most people make mistakes. And there’s a really logical reason why we make this mistakes, if you have a Latin based language, because, of course, in Latin based languages, you always have an article, right? And that’s why we make that error.
So this is one of the most common errors that I hear students make. And it comes up a lot in speaking, because very often when you’re speaking, you’re generalizing. So if we go back to the point I made before about the exams, if you’re taking an exam, it can be a problem.
That’s because in, for example, part four of the Cambridge exams, you have to give your opinion on things where you are generalizing. You’ll very often hear people saying, “oh, the football is an important sport” – football is an important sport. So please be careful with that.
Here are more times that we use the zero article, and this is when we’re going to start getting into the useful things to remember. So the three things that I’ve just discussed for each kind of article, think of those things as the rules, if you like. Those are the most important things you need to learn. These ones that we’re going to look at now, we’re going to think about them as patterns or as exceptions, and you learn them separately.
Please do not try and learn the one hundred and fifty two rules for articles because 1) you will not learn them and 2) Life is far too short. So, when we talk about institutions, we usually don’t use an article. For example, “he’s in prison, at university, at home”. I know home isn’t technically an institution, but you can think of it as one. Right. And in school. So in these examples, it’s like you’re in the process of it. We could also use “in hospital”. So you’re in the process of going through an institution i, we don’t use an article. There are exceptions to that rule. I could say “he’s in hospital” or “he’s in the hospital”. This is slightly different. So if I’m saying “he’s in hospital”, he’s ill and he’s going through the process of getting better. If I’m saying “he’s in the hospital”, I’m talking more about the specific hospital or the building. And again, this is why it’s important for your writing, because if you’re analyzing a piece of writing, these little things can actually make a difference.
These words never have an article.
I don’t eat the breakfast. I eat breakfast, lunch. And I eat dinner. Days of the week also have zero articles. Again, if you’re coming from a Latin based language, that’s problematic for you because in your language, you always have an article with these examples.
How we use articles when we talk about towns and cities
- streets (except the High Street)
- public squares
How we use articles when we talk about geography
I don’t use it before countries. So Spain, not the Spain is in Europe, but if they’ve got these kind of words, we will use an article
- “Coast”, etc.
So we’ll talk about the United States, the U.K., the Ivory Coast. And we don’t use it if we’re talking about states or provinces or cities. So I wouldn’t say “the Edinburgh”.
Sometimes is specifically part of the name and then we can include it. Or if you have words like territory or coast in there, we will use it, for example “he would live in California”, but we talk about the Northwest Territories in Canada. And then words like the Netherlands and generally, if a country is a group of islands or a group of pieces, like these ones here, the Philippines or the Maldives or the Bahamas. In those cases we’re grouping them together, that’s also going to use an article.
We also use THE in these examples of geography,. If you’re talking about
- collections of lakes,
- chain of mountains
use the definite article. You might notice, when we’ve got anything that’s collective, for example, the United States of America, the the United Kingdom, when we’re grouping things together, like mountain chains as well, we’re using definite articles. Deserts are also with the definite article, and references. So if it’s the equator or the South Pole or the North Pole, and regions, we use a definite article.
When someone’s speaking, that’s not really important. But when you’re reading it can be important and again, especially for exams. So you need to think about how things are being marked. In general, these errors will be considered basic errors, even though it’s actually really complex to use an article. We’ve just said there’s about one hundred and fifty rules. That’s really hard. But even the fact that it is difficult, they still tend to be marked as basic errors. So you do need to be careful about it. But in terms of communicating, it’s really not an issue. Having said that, you need to think about your English goals and what you need English for. If you are someone who is very confident speaking fluently, it’s probably time for you to consider your accuracy, and start to consider those errors. And if you’re making these mistakes, if you’re someone that is not very fluent, I wouldn’t worry so much about this right now in your speaking, that’s not what you need to focus on.