The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Grammatical article

An article is a word that is put next to a noun to indicate the type of reference being made to the noun.

Articles can have various functions:

  • a definite article (English the) indicates that the noun refers to a specific thing that the speaker has in mind (The chair is broken)
  • an indefinite article (English a, an or some) indicates that the noun refers to something of the kind, but the particular instance isn't important (Block the door with a chair).
  • a partitive article indicates an indefinite quantity of a mass noun; there is no partitive article in English, though the word some often has that function. An example is French du / de la, as in Voulez-vous du café ? ("Do you want some coffee?")

Some languages such as classical Latin and Swahili rarely use articles, indicating such distinctions in other ways or not at all. Some languages, including Japanese and Russian do not have them at all (in Russian, if it is absolutely necessary, you can use "one" and "that" in contexts where other languages would use an indefinite and definite article). Other languages, including Arabic, Welsh and the constructed language Esperanto, have definite articles, but no indefinite articles. In the etymologies of many languages, definite articles formerly were demonstrative pronouns or adjective; compare the fate of the Latin demonstrative ille in the Romance languages, becoming French le, la and les, Spanish el and la, and Italian il, lo and la.

Many European languages that have grammatical gender usually have their article agree with the gender of the noun (French le 'the' masculine, la feminine).

The articles in these languages not only distinguish between the genders, but can indicate different meanings depending on the article used, as in Spanish, where la cólera is "anger" and el cólera is "cholera", or German, where die Steuer is "the tax" and das Steuer is "the steering-wheel", or Swedish, where en plan is "a plan" and ett plan is "a plane".

The use of articles may vary between languages. For example, French uses its definite article in cases where English uses no article, such as in general statements about a mass noun: Le maïs est un grain. ("Maize is a grain"); in French, since the plural forms marked on nouns often no longer affect pronunciation, the article marks the grammatical gender and number of the noun, and French uses words such as ce to specify increasing definiteness. Ancient Greek uses the definite article with proper names: ho Iesous ("the Jesus"), and, optionally, before both a noun and each of its adjectives: ho páter ho agathòs (literally, "the father the good"; naturally, "the good father").

By the same token, the words used as English articles have other grammatical functions. See A, an.

In Scandinavian languages the definite article can be a suffix; examples planen is "the plan", and planet is "the plane" or "the airplane's wing". (en plan is "a plan", and ett plan is "a plane" or "an airplane's wing".) In Swedish, a double definite article is possible; in which a free-standing article (det, den, de) and the definite article suffix are used together (det vita planet "the white plane") The Romanian language also uses suffixes for articles; for example, consulul is 'the consul'. Macedonian does also; for example, drvo means 'tree', while drvoto means 'the tree'.


The, the English grammatical article

The word "the" functions primarily as the definite grammatical article in the English language.

The and that are common developments from the same Old English system. Old English had a definite article se, in the masculine gender, seo, feminine, and þæt, neuter. These words functioned both as demonstrative pronouns and as grammatical articles. In Middle English these had all fallen together into þe, the ancestor of the Modern English word.


The following discussion is meant to give pointers in the uses of the grammatical articles the and a for non-native speakers

When using the English language, the can be thought of as similar to a little computer cursor. Where the cursor is resting, one's attention also rests.

The chair ...
It is customary to focus on the word following the word the with the questions 'who', 'where', 'when', 'why', 'how', and then wait for the rest of the sentence, which should complete the meaning.
The chair is ...
Now it gets interesting - is implies NOW, so the listener should pay attention for a current event!
The chair is broken.
The sentence is completed; the listener sits on that specific chair at his own peril.

The little words are important

H.S. Wall , a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas, once said that in a mathematical proof, the little words are important, and illustrated it with the statement

I have a son

which he noted does not necessarily mean that he has only one son.

Age of the speaker

Finally, the use of the a and the articles in the English language are typically learned by native speakers as children before they are three years old. People who write in English and who drop the grammatical articles risk being seen as poor writers and speakers by native speakers.

See also: Determiner

Last updated: 02-06-2005 06:57:01
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55