What are the four different articles of English?
This is the first of four lessons about Articles. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Introduce the concept of articles in English
– Discuss why errors with articles are common among students
– Explore differences between the four article types
Articles are a particular type of word that many students studying the English language frequently get wrong. Even after years of studying the language, it’s still common for many students to make simple errors in this aspect of grammar – and unfortunately, such mistakes are very noticeable to native speakers of the language. But why is it so common for even experienced learners of English to make these mistakes, and what can be done to avoid such errors in your academic English?
There are two major reasons that students make frequent errors when using articles. The first is that articles are absent from many languages, and so this word type may be particularly tricky or unfamiliar for new learners of English. The second and most important factor is that there are so many rules to remember when using articles that it’s no wonder a non-native speaker forgets them from time to time. As a student, the trick is to make sure that you know these rules so well that when editing your work you can see precisely where you’ve gone wrong. Over the next four lessons then, we’ll discuss the rules of articles and provide examples and activities to check your comprehension. Before such rules can be explored however, we must begin with the basics of what articles are and how they’re used in English.
Although the title states that there are four articles in the English language, this is not quite true. Really, there are only two articles that you’ll need to learn:
The situation is complicated however by the fact that the indefinite article ‘a’ may have two forms: ‘a’ and ‘an’, and that sometimes there may be no article necessary at all – which is often called the ‘zero article.’ Such variation could therefore mean that four types (or forms) of article are said to exist, as are shown below:
Along with demonstratives and quantifiers, articles are a type of determiner in English grammar. It’s important to know that articles are a type of determiner because knowing this explains some of the behaviour of this words type, such as that articles must precede nouns or noun phrases in English (such as ‘teacher’ or ‘answer’ in the above examples) and that only one determiner may be used at any one time in a sentence or phrases.
Every time we encounter a noun or noun phrase in our writing or speech, we are therefore required to consider two things about articles. The first is whether or not an article is needed at all, while the second (if one is needed) relates to which of the four types should be selected. Of course, it’s important to also recognise that in addition to coming before nouns, articles may also precede the adjectives or adverbs which make up a noun phrase, such as in the following examples:
With this in mind, the next three lessons provide some general guidance and specific rules for when to use ‘the’, ‘a’ or ‘an’, or the ‘zero article’. While articles may appear simple in form, they are in fact difficult in practice due to the sheer number of rules required to use them correctly. While we will do our best to provide you with general guidance for recognising each type that will hopefully limit the memorisation of rules, do remember that such generalisations are often oversimplified – and that rules almost always have exceptions. One such exception, for example, is the use of idioms such as ‘in a hurry’, ‘off the record’ or ‘in debt’. Because idioms such as these do not follow any of the rules which will be explained in Lessons 2-4, and because they account for almost 10% of all cases of article usage, students will simply have to learn these expressions as they would any other vocabulary chunk.
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