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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, some or any) indicates that the noun refers to something of the kind, but the particular instance isn't important (Block the door with a chair).
- a zero article same as the definite article but is not pronounced.
- a partitive article indicates an indefinite quantity of a mass noun; there is no partitive article in English, though the words some or any often have 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, Russian and Thai do not have them at all (in those languages, if 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 adjectives; 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). Articles in several languages also change according to the number of the noun. In French, since the plural forms marked on nouns often no longer affect pronunciation, the article marks the number of the noun.
When homonyms have a different gender in these languages, the articles can differentiate them, as in Spanish, where la cólera (feminine) is "anger" and el cólera (masculine) is "cholera", or German, where die Steuer (feminine) is "the tax" and das Steuer (neuter) is "the steering-wheel", or Swedish, where en plan (common) is "a plan" and ett plan (neuter) 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".)
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. In Swedish, planen is "the plan", and planet is "the plane", and 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 English.
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 English, 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 articles a and the is 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: 09-12-2005 02:39:13