Intercontinental Ink: Struggles with the English Article System

As a consultant here at the MSU Writing Center, I’ve noticed one item in particular that almost all Writing Center clients who are non-native speakers of English struggle with: the English article system. Articles like a and the are an inherent knowledge native English speakers take for granted. Sure, if something is definite, it is preceded by the, like the frog. Indefinite would be a frog.

Simple, yes? No.

Let’s look at plurals. The frogs is fine, but what about a frogs? Or simply frogs? Then we can get into uncountable things, like life, which doesn’t need an article. But the life has a different, more colloquial meaning, so using this article unknowingly could create unintentional meaning.

Mid-way though a writing center consultation, I’ll find myself confidently tromping down the path of explaining the English article system, only to stumble over my shoddily crafted rationales.

I’ll say, “Yeah, all nouns need an article!” Haha, no. “Okay, well, if it’s plural then you don’t. Usually. Sometimes. I think?”

Then I’ll backtrack with, “Um, no, actually just some… like… well let’s just look at an example in your paper,” as I continue to not sufficiently explain anything of value.

After I’ve finished this awkward conversation with myself, praying that the client still thinks I possess some fragment of credibility, I determine that honesty is probably best in this situation: I don’t know how to explain the English article system. Articles are like prepositions in that you just have to know when to use them.

Latin doesn’t use articles. Japanese doesn’t use articles. Russian doesn’t use articles. Why, then, does English? Unfortunately, it’s just the way it works. And on behalf of English and those who cannot explain it, I’m sorry.

One thought on “Intercontinental Ink: Struggles with the English Article System

  1. This is why you should come back to linguistics. You should start by reading Greg Carlson’s 1977 dissertation. It’s enthralling. I can loan it to you.

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