Hello there! It’s konkaz (@konkazuk) here.
Just hearing the word “article” makes you sigh, doesn’t it?
When it comes to learning English, there are lots of other things to input, so you tend to put off such a seemingly less important matter until later…
And you leave it for a long time and have never actually touched it since then… therefore, it has been kept uncertain till today…
I guess there are quite a few people having a situation like this?
By the way, such a thing like “article” does not exist in Japanese language.
Well, why don’t we make it clear by taking this opportunity, then?
- Let’s capture the “the”!
- “a” and “an”
- “No article” (zero article)
- ① When we are referring to things in general
- ② The names of countries, states, cities, and streets
- ③ The names of ports or games
- ④ The names of meals
- ⑤ The names of lakes, individual mountains, islands, and continents
- ⑥ Academic subjects
- ⑦ The names of Language
- ⑧ The names of seasons, months, days, holidays, and time
Let’s capture the “the”!
Right. We start with this one…
You might have an impression that “the” is generally put before something famous…
Well, it’s not quite right, however there are certain patterns that the article is put before something definite, and that’s why it is called “the definite article”.
① The gathering of things (Union, United, Republic, etc)
Since the world has become more and more globalized in various aspects over the past 5-10 years, the information of what is going on around the world is surging in daily.
Therefore it is good to know in which case we need to put the indefinite article “the” before any types of nation or organisation, etc.
Essentially, “the” is not used before the name of countries.
However, if it has got a collective form of some countries or states and has got the monarch (usually the word “Kingdom” is included in the name of the country) or it is led by the president or the prime minister and has got the form of “Republic”, “the” is required.
the United Kingdom, the United States of America, the Republic of Ireland, Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, …and some old ones are… the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Ottoman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, etc.
By the way, the countries such as “The Netherlands” and “The Gambia” have got the definite article, although the name of these countries seem to be any other countries.
However, if you check their formal name, they are actually “the Kingdom of the Netherlands” and “the Republic of Gambia”.
They are very confusing, aren’t they?
To be honest with you, if you investigate some other countries which are normally called without the definite article, their formal name actually includes the word “Republic”. (ex. the Italian Republic, the French Republic, and so on.)
So…, I guess we better draw the line here for the time being, and follow the way how they are called generally…
“The” is also applied to the group of Islands.
And also “the” is used before the name of organization which is being formed with some countries or similar sorts.
I suppose if you see the words such as “United” and “Union”, you can use the definite article.
These words are often written with an informal way on the internet, so you might find them without “the”, however they all need the definite article when you call them with a formal way.
② One and only
You use “the” before the noun which existence is the one and only.
the sun, the moon, the sky, the earth, the North, the West, the North Pole, the Antarctic, the world, the air, the morning, the evening, the King, the Pope, the president of 〜, the Prime Minister, the CEO, the best 〜, the most 〜, etc.
You need to be careful when it comes to calling planets.
You need to put “the” before “earth” and “moon” because they are “common nouns” and are “the one and only” type. However regarding the other planets such as Mars, Mercury, Venus, and so on, even though they are “the one and only” type, they are “proper nouns” at the same time. Therefore the definite article is not applied just like you don’t put “the” before people’s name.
As for “compass directions”, when they are used to designate a definite region, for example… “The South is hotter than the North.” (with capital letter), or when they follow prepositions, just like “to the east” or “towards the south”, the definite article is applied.
“The King” or “The Queen” is the one and only in the country, so the definite article is applied. However, when their names follow them, they are treated as title just like “Sir.”, “Lady” or “Mr.”, hence no article is to be applied. (ex “King George” and “Queen Elizabeth”)
③ A body of water
When a body of water has got a form as river, gulf, canal, ocean, etc. and it has got a name, you use “the”.
the River Thames, the Straits of Dover, the Pacific Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, the River Nile, the Gulf of Mexico, etc.
④ Deserts, forests, and mountain ranges
When these geographical areas have got names, “the” is applied, however…
the Gobi, the Sahara, the Amazon Rainforest, the black forest, the Rocky Mountains, the Andes, etc.
⑤ The names of families
When you call the names of families such as Tokugawa-ke, Fujiwara-ke, Haus Habsburg-ke, and so on, you use the definite article before their surnames.
⑥ The name of musical instruments
the piano, the flute, the guitar, the trombone, etc.
⑦ public service systems, etc.
I was on the train when you called me. You can get all these informations on the internet. The song was played on the radio. I’m on the bus. The police are investigating the cause of the accident. The wi-fi is available, here, etc.
⑧ Something which has already been mentioned
So, this is the situation where we Japanese translate “the” as “sono”
“The” is used for something that has already been mentioned in the conversation and has become something specific for the speaker/listener, or the writer/reader.
If someone just says, “a ten thousand-yen note”, it cannot be specified, because “a ten thousand-yen note” exists all over Japan.
At this point, it is treated as a countable non-specific noun, thus it is described as “a ten thousand-yen note” with “a”.
Now, if your friend says,
“By the way, I was so lucky that I picked up a ten thousand-yen note!”
At the point where your friend start talking to you, he/she knows the fact that you don’t know which ten thousand-yen note he/she is going to talk about, therefore your friend regards “ten thousand-yen note” as non-specified noun to you, and describe it with “a”
And then, once you have finished listening to what your friend was saying, you have recognised it as “the ten thousand-yen note which your friend picked up yesterday”.
So, here, you go like…
“Wow, seriously? And what did you do with the ten thousand-yen note?”
You specify “ten thousand-yen note” by using definite article “the”.
Finally, it’s about the pronunciation of “the”.
Some of you might be using indefinite articles “a” and “an” in a proper way, however, I assume that there are a good number of people who have forgotten about the pronunciation of this “the”…?
Generally, “the” is pronounced as [ðə] , but when it is followed by the word beginning with a vowel sound, it is pronounced as [ði]. (They are often described as [za] and [ji] in Katakana, however actual pronunciations for these are different as you can see.)
“The end” which we often hear is a typical example, isn’t it?
“a” and “an”
Right. We are going to work on “a / an “.
They are called “the indefinite article” and are used before the singular form of countable nouns.
It is used when you talk about something (noun) that has not been mentioned before.
It is basically the same thing as what is explained in ⑧ of previous section, but anyway…
Let’s say that your friend/colleague tells you like…
“Umm… today, there was a lady who was wearing a yellow hat in front of the station, and she was acting strangely somehow.“
Your friend/colleague is talking about this to you for the first time, so at this point, this “lady” is one of the many in the world to you, therefore it is dealt as “non-specific”. The indefinite article “a” is used.
And then, once you have finished listening to your friend/colleague, you now can specify the lady as “the woman whom your friend/colleague is talking about”, therefore you go like…
“OK, and what happened to the lady next?”
You use “the” to talk about this lady.
countable noun / uncountable noun
“a / an” is used before countable nouns and you can use it for most of the things which you think you can count by using numbers.
a person, a girl, a dog, a pen, a book, a table, a pair of scissors, a star, a banana, a key, a hair, a class, a family, a house, etc.
On the contrary, things like “liquid” and “powder” or abstract ideas such as “health” and “patience” are categorised as uncountable noun. (Essentially, they don’t have a plural form)
water, oil, jam, salt, gold, cake, perfume, cash, cotton, butter, danger, happiness, nature, time, tennis, confidence, etc.
*However, when they are kept in some kind of containers or are cut into some pieces, they can be treated as countable.
a glass of water, a jar of jam/honey, a bottle of perfume, a slice of toast, a piece of cake, a cup of tea, a pinch of salt, etc.
When to use “an”
“an” (normally pronounced as [ən] but when emphasizd [æn] ) is basically used when it is followed by the word beginning with a vowel letter (a, i, u, e, o).
an apple, an egg, an apartment, an orange, an example, an umbrella, an organised plan, an empty box, etc.
However, we sometimes see that “an” is used before the word that doesn’t begin with a vowel letter…
an hour, an honest man, an MBA (Master of Business Administration), an SOS signal, etc.
However, when you check phonetic symbols of these words…
hour [aʊə], honest [ɒnɪst], MBA [em biː ˈeɪ], SOS [es əʊ ˈes]
you see all of them are beginning with a vowel letter. So, that means…
it is decided by the word beginning with a vowel sound, but not vowel letter!
This is a bit confusing, but there are also some words that begin with a vowel letter which doesn’t have a vowel sound!
usability [juːzəˈbɪlɪti], university [juːnɪˈvɜːsətiː], unicorn [juːnɪkɔːn], universe [juːnɪˌvɜːs], utility [juːˈtɪl.ɪ.ti], ukulele[juː.kə.ˈleɪ.li], uniform [juːnɪfɔːm], utopia [juˈtəʊpɪə], UFO [ju ɛf ˈəʊ], eureka [juˈɹikə], euro [jʊəɹəʊ], esclop [slɒp], etc.
There are some more but as you can see, most of the words are beginning with the letter “u”.
So, even though these words begin with a vowel letter, you are to put “a” but not “an”.
“No article” (zero article)
No article is used before uncountable nouns such as “water”, “oil”, and so on or abstract ones such as “religion”, “education”, etc. as long as we are referring to things in general.
And also, articles are not applied to plural form of countable nouns such as “books” and “apples”. Instead of articles, a word that shows a quantity of uncountable noun such as “a few”, “many”, “some”, “several”, etc. is used.
Other than what is mentioned above, there are some patterns we can follow to see when to use “no article”.
I personally believe that covering this area will reduce the time of confusion with articles.
① When we are referring to things in general
Smoking is bad for you. People are strange. Sushi is Japanese food.
② The names of countries, states, cities, and streets
Jamaica, Romania, Manchester, California, Camden Town, Tokyo, Downs road, Regent street, etc.
③ The names of ports or games
volleyball, skiing, table tennis, monopoly, chess, etc.
④ The names of meals
breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper
⑤ The names of lakes, individual mountains, islands, and continents
Lake Tanganyika, Caspian Sea, Mt Fuji, Asia, Africa, etc.
⑥ Academic subjects
Physics, Science, Law, Mathematics, etc.
⑦ The names of Language
Chinese, English, Russian, Swahili, etc.
⑧ The names of seasons, months, days, holidays, and time
Summer, February, Thursday, St. Andrew’s day, 6 o’clock, etc.
Finally, we sometimes bump into those people who can speak fluently with seemingly perfect pronunciation. However, according to native speakers, they can easily see whether the person is native or not by how the person uses “articles”.
It might take some time to be able to apply all these rules of “articles” to your English-speaking practice, but let’s keep it up!
👉 * Japanese version of this blog post