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A cri de coeur about the articles in English grammar. A, THE and THE ZERO ARTICLE

Hello everyone. 

For non-native English speakers

  Is there anyone who has fully understood this grammar point? Can you use the articles without thinking, even though there's no such concept in your native language? If yes, then this question is for you:


Did you memorise all the Murphy's grammar books? Is it the result of reading fiction and/or watching films? Did you go to an English-speaking country and had an epiphany during the conversation with a bartender? Did you sell your soul to the devil? What did you do? Please tell me. I'm all ears. If you don't want to write it publicly, please (please!) send me a personal message. 

For native English speakers (if you have read this far for some reason)

What do you think sounds less weird?

Q: What do you do?

a) I'm student.

b) I'm the student.

In case you're wondering: I'm trying to develop a strategy "when in doubt".


2018年3月26日 14:23
Comments · 12
Ksenia, I understand this grammar point can be challenging.

My advice: There are a lot of rules (depending on whether it’s singular or plural, referring to a whole class or an individual). You can look them up online or in grammar books, but a real quick check (if you can’t remember the applicable rule) would probably be to ask yourself if you could substitute “one” or “that” (or "those") in your native language. “One” implies the indefinite article, while “that” implies the definite article. Let me know how it goes!

To KP’s point:
Neil Armstrong’s sentence would be correct with or without the indefinite article, but the meaning would be entirely different:
for a man = for one man (Neil)
for man = for mankind (that is, humanity, including all men and all woman)

To Paul’s point:
I agree with him that “I’m the student” is at least grammatically correct and sounds less weird. However, that is exactly why I would recommend against it. If you say “I’m the student,” people will understand that you are a definite student — perhaps the student who is giving the valedictory speech, or the student who came to school armed to the teeth. You get how that could be a problem ;) On the other hand, if you say “I’m student,” it’s wrong, so native speakers won’t be so quick to assume they know what you’re talking about, thus resulting in fewer awkward misunderstandings. Unless your accent is perfect, you’re going to sound weird anyhow. And if your accent is perfect and you say “I’m the student” when you meant “I’m a student,” you will definitely be misunderstood.

I have a friend in England who is from a Slavic-speaking country.  She taught English in her home country for several years, has a Proficiency certificate and has lived here for many years with native speakers.  At one point, she got fed up of making mistakes with articles so she asked her housemates to mercilessly correct every mistake with articles she made for one week solid.  She is now better but not perfect. 

I agree with everything Phil said.  He recommended substituting "one" and "that/those" as a check.  More extreme options would be "any" and "the only".  So if you say "I'm the only student", the effect might be more obvious.

Another thing worth mentioning is that "a/an" and "the" are sometimes used for dramatic effect and, in such cases, non-natives will find it even harder to work out the rules in play. For example, I have a son called Tom (actually not his real name). I sometimes say things like: "You're being a lovely Tom today".  I have characterised his name as a species, like "a cat", but just playfully. 


In terms of sounding less weird, you mean that instead of saying 'I am a student' you say one of those other options? 

I mean, they both sound bad. But 'I'm the student' is at least a grammatically correct construction in other contexts whereas 'I'm student' is not correct under any circumstances. So putting an article there is better than nothing I guess, although like I said it still sounds bad.

“To use an infinitive” versus “to use the infinitive.” Ksenia, I believe you on the right track — it is “abstract” enough that it doesn’t matter if we use the definite or indefinite article. On the one hand, each verb only has one infinitive, so it is *the* infinitive of the verb in question. On the other hand, since there is always the possibility of using different verbs, each with its own infinitive, we could just as easily say “an infinitive.” We cannot just use the null article, however, as singular countable nouns always require an article or other determiner (this, that, my, your, etc.). We can avoid this issue by using the “one” test — if the word “one” could possibly work, then don’t use the null article (except where a noun is used as an adverb, such as “eating dinner” = dining). I would definitely *not* recommend using “any” as a test for which article to use.

"sound like a toddler"   I just thought I would distract your thoughts a little and give you another topic to discuss!
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Language Skills
English, Gaelic (Irish), Russian
Learning Language
English, Gaelic (Irish)