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Thread: The articles

  1. #1

    Question The articles

    Hello, my name is erihime. This is my first time to post here. I am a Japanese and have been learning English quite some time.

    Among other things, the usage of the articles is the most difficult and complicated thing for me. Whenever I write, I have to stop and think...

    "Do I need 'the' here or 'a'?"

    Let me give you an example.

    "I used to go to a department store."

    By adding 'a' in front of the word 'department store', did I generalize the deparment stores? or should I have written "I used to go to the department stores"?

    I always feel lost with the articles. Could somebody give me some examples of sentences in which I can see where to (not to) use the articles, please?

    If you could also provide me with some titles of the books which explain the usage o the articles, I really appreciate it.

    Thank you very much.


  2. rewboss's Avatar

    • Join Date: Feb 2006
    • Posts: 1,552

    Re: The articles

    Articles are a feature of European languages, and they can be difficult if you're not used to them.

    The rules are sometimes a bit complicated, but the most important rule is this: When we use "the", it means: "You know which one I am talking about."

    If you tell me, "I used to go to a department store", then either you think I have no way of knowing which department store, or it's not important which one.

    But if you tell, "I used to go to the department store", they you are telling me that you think I know which department store. It might be the department store we mentioned earlier in the conversation; or it might be the only department store in town.

    A few more examples:

    When I was last in London, I visited the Queen. (There is only one possible Queen I could be talking about, because there is [usually] only one Queen you could visit in London: Queen Elizabeth, the Queen of England.)

    Canberra is the capital city of Australia. (Australia only has one capital city.)

    There's a cat in our garden. (I don't know which cat.)
    What colour is it?
    The cat? It's black. (The same cat I was just talking about.)
    Oh, that's the neighbour's cat. (There's only one neighbour with a cat, and he only has one cat.)

    There is a blue pen, a black pen, and a pencil. (I am mentioning these things for the first time.)
    OK, give me the black pen. (The black pen you just told me about.)

    There are ten blue pens and five black pens.
    OK, give me a black pen. (Only one pen, please, and it doesn't matter which one.)

    Of course, the exact rules are complicated, but this is a start.

  3. #3

    Question Re: The articles

    Hello, rewboss...

    Thank you so much for the thorough explanation with the examples.l

    I think I know where to use 'the' and 'a/an'. Here is another question just popped up in my mind.

    When we say, " I like dogs better than cats", we are talking about dogs and cats in general. First of all, is it correct to make the nouns (i.e. dogs and cats) plural? ( I think it is.) Then, if I write "I like a dog better than a cat", did I change the meaning of the first sentence? Are both correct?

    Also, we should not put 'a/an' in front of uncountable nouns. But when we are talking about the specific object, we can still use 'the', can't we?

    "We saw deer in our backyard. The deer was nipping the branches."

    I don't need to put 'the' before the first 'deer' , do I?

    The more I think, the more I get confused...

    Could you please take a look at the following sentences?

    1. I met a girl at the station. The girl was wearing a black coat.
    2. A supermarket(or Supermarkets?) is(are) very large in the U.S.A.
    3. Furniture is usually expensive. (In this case, I am not talking about any specific furniture. That means I don't have to put any articles, doesn't it?)

    I really appreciate your help.
    Thank you very much.

  4. Newbie
    Student or Learner
    • Member Info
      • Native Language:
      • Cambodian
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      • Cambodia
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    • Join Date: Aug 2006
    • Posts: 18

    Re: The articles

    I have read your explanation. Now i can much clearer about "a/an or the". But i still misunderstand about "no article (not use a/an or the) in the sentence" and when we need use article? This is another problem about using article that i face.

    I really thank for your help me to clean this problem

  5. rewboss's Avatar

    • Join Date: Feb 2006
    • Posts: 1,552

    Re: The articles

    "I like dogs better than cats."
    "I like a dog better than a cat."

    The difference is very subtle. In the first sentence we are talking about dogs and cats in general, while in the second sentence we are talking about any dog and any cat that exists. In this case, we would usually use the first sentence, although the second is not wrong. But consider this:

    "If we decide to have a pet, I'd like a dog better than a cat."

    Here, we're definitely talking only about one animal -- either one dog, or one cat. It doesn't matter which dog or which cat, the speaker would prefer to have a dog -- only one.

    "We saw deer in our backyard. The deer was nipping the branches."

    "Deer" here is actually a plural, so the second half of the sentence makes more sense as "the deer were...". In this case, since we're not talking about deer in general -- just a small subset of deer -- we would also say "We saw some deer...", although it's not incorrect without "some". Many grammar books treat "some" as the plural of "a", and that's actually quite helpful.

    As for your sentences:

    1. Yes, very good.
    2. You can say "A supermarket..." in certain circumstances, but you're really talking about supermarkets in general, so "Supermarkets are..." sounds better.
    3. Yes, that's correct.

    kimroen, the most important reason for not using articles is when we are talking about things in general. For example:

    I saw a cat.

    That's one specific cat. I don't know the identity of the cat, but it was a specific cat.

    I like cats.

    That's cats in general. It doesn't matter which cat it is, I like them all.

  6. #6

    Re: The articles

    Hello, rewboss.

    Thank you very much.
    I feel more confident when I write sentences. I may still get confused, then I will go back to your explanation.

    Thanks again!


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