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    #1

    a, the or zero article

    Hello,

    Struggling with the arcticles, I'm close to admitting defeat. I'd very much appreciate it if anyboby could explain the usage of the articles in the sentences below

    1. The rivers of Britain are short. (There is no context. This is a sentence from an exercise book. There're lots of rivers in Britain, why 'the'?)

    2. Rivers in Britain are short. (I see almost no difference if compared to N1. Just rivers in Britain; it's not important to identify which. Or should the sentence begin with 'the rivers'?)

    3. John has a wife, a son and three daughters. So, John is the head of a big family. (here 'a big family' acts as a category, I understand that. But is it also okay to say "the head of the big family' - his family?)

    It's almost incomprehensible.
    I'd be very grateful for help.

  1. 5jj's Avatar
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    #2

    Re: a, the or zero article

    Quote Originally Posted by Verona_82 View Post
    Struggling with the arcticles, I'm close to admitting defeat. So am I - and I am a native speaker with many years of teaching experience!

    1. The rivers of Britain are short. (There is no context. This is a sentence from an exercise book. There're lots of rivers in Britain, why 'the'?). All the rivers of Britain. As a group, they are as unique as 'the sun'.

    2. Rivers in Britain are short. (I see almost no difference if compared to N1. Just rivers in Britain; it's not important to identify which. Or should the sentence begin with 'the rivers'?). It's 'in' that's important. I imagine that you are OK with 'Rivers can be difficult to cross' or 'Rivers are wide, but streams are narrow'. So, - 'Rivers in Britain are short.'

    3. John has a wife, a son and three daughters. So, John is the head of a big family. (here 'a big family' acts as a category, I understand that. But is it also okay to say "the head of the big family' - his family?). Not unless we have been talking about several families, a big one, a small one, a disfunctional one, etc. Then, after the first mention, we can speak of the big family - we know which one we are referring to.
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    #3

    Re: a, the or zero article

    Thank you, 5jj!

    After your explanation I think I'll have to come to terms with the first two sentences. However, I'm afraid I still don't get the last one. I don't understand why 'the family' cannot refer to his own family.

    I love spending time with the family - my family
    John is the head of the [his] big family. Why is it wrong?

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    #4

    Re: a, the or zero article

    He could indeed be the head of the family. Once you put in 'big', the question arises - which big family?

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    #5

    Re: a, the or zero article

    Would it be logical to think of any big family when we've just been talking about John's? Who might think about another big family that John happens to be the head of?

    PS. 5jj, it seems to me I understand the usage of 'a' there; I'm just thinking in Russian at the moment - the way, I'm sure, a lot of my compatriots would think when looking at this sentence.

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    #6

    Re: a, the or zero article

    Quote Originally Posted by Verona_82 View Post
    Would it be logical to think of any big family when we've just been talking about John's? Who might think about another big family that John happens to be the head of?

    PS. 5jj, it seems to me I understand the usage of 'a' there; I'm just thinking in Russian at the moment - the way, I'm sure, a lot of my compatriots would think when looking at this sentence.
    It is very subtle. (Sorry if I jump into the discussion without invitation). You have introduced the family already, right, but you haven't introduced "big" yet.

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    #7

    Re: a, the or zero article

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    5
    I also must admit that even after fivejedjon's explanation I don't understand why we should put the in the first sentence and leave it out in the second.

    I suspect that both options are possible in both sentenses.

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    #8

    Re: a, the or zero article

    Quote Originally Posted by Kotfor View Post
    I also must admit that even after fivejedjon's explanation I don't understand why we should put the in the first sentence and leave it out in the second.

    I suspect that both options are possible in both sentenses.
    How about an opinion from a native?
    "The rivers..." sounds to me like a fact that stands on its own. It refers to the collective of *all* rivers in Britain. Ok, I get it.

    "Rivers in Britain..." sounds to me like a fact that is going to be followed by a logical explanation of why... In other words, it feels like an introductory statement that does *not* stand on its own and should have a follow-up explanation. The speaker said it to get my attention.

    Very subtle differences to my ear but that's my take.

    Not a teacher

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    #9

    Re: a, the or zero article

    Quote Originally Posted by Khosro View Post
    It is very subtle. (Sorry if I jump into the discussion without invitation). You have introduced the family already, right, but you haven't introduced "big" yet.
    You don't have to wait for an invitation. - You'd be waiting a long time if you did.

    You are correct, in my opinion. Thank you.

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    #10

    Re: a, the or zero article

    Quote Originally Posted by Kotfor View Post
    I suspect that both options are possible in both sentences.
    Pretty well anything is possible if you hunt around for the right context, but this is unlikely. Try these:

    A. John is the head of a family.

    B. John is the head of a big family.

    C. John has a wife, a son and three daughters.[We understand that this collection of people is a family] There is no question of equal rights for women in this part of the world - John is the head of the [ previously mentioned] family.

    D: John has a wife, a son and three daughters. [We do not necessarily think of this as a big family] As the head of a big family, John needs to work hard to earn ....

    E. John has seventeen children, all of whom still live at home [We do think of this as a big family]. As head of the [previously mentioned] big family, John needs ...

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