40. Errors with Articles

Like errors with prepositions, errors with articles are sometimes hard to catch. This is partly because of the complexity of the article system in English, and partly because articles, like prepositions, are “small words” and one’s eye tends to skip over errors involving these words.
The basic uses of articles are explained in the chart:

Indefinite Articles and anDefinite Article theNo Article (Ø)
A or an is used before singular nouns when one does not have a specific person, place, thing, or concept in mind:The is used before singular, plural, and non-count nouns when one has a specific person, place, thing, or concept in mind:No article is used before non-count nouns or plural nouns when one does not have specific persons, places, things, or concepts in mind
an orangethe orangeØ orange
a chairthe orangesØ oranges
the fruitØ fruit
the chairØ chair
the chairsØ chairs
the furnitureØ furniture

The indefinite article a is used before words that begin with a consonant sound (a chair, a book); an is used before words that begin with a vowel sound (an orange, an ocean liner). Before words that begin with the letters h- and u-, either a or an can be used, depending on the pronunciation of the words.

Vowel SoundsConsonant Sounds
an honor
an umbrella
a hat
a university

There are also some specific rules for using (or not using) articles that you should be aware of.

  • An indefinite article can be used to mean “one.” It can also used to mean “per.”

a half, a quarter, a third, a tenth
a mile a minute (one mile per minute)
an apple a day (one apple per day)

  • A definite article is used when there is only one example or the thing or person, or when the identity of the thing or person is clear.

The Moon went behind some clouds. (There’s only one Moon.)
Please open the door. (You know which door I mean.)

  • A definite article is usually used before these expressions of time and position.
the morningthe frontthe beginning
the afternoonthe backthe middle
the evening*the centerthe end
the top
the pastthe bottom
the present
the future

*No article is used in the expression “at night.”

  • A definite article comes before a singular noun that is used as a representative of an entire class of things. This is especially common with the names of animals, trees, inventions, musical instruments, and parts of the body.

The tiger is the largest cat.
My favorite tree is the oak.
The Wright Bothers invented the airplane.
The oboe is a woodwind instrument.
The heart pumps blood.

  • A definite article is used before expressions with a ordinal number. No article is used before expressions with cardinal numbers.
    the firstone
    the fourth chapterChapter Four
    the seventh volumeVolume Seven
  • A definite article is used before decades and centuries.
the 1930’sthe 1800’s
the fiftiesthe twenty-first century
  • A definite article is usually used before superlative forms of adjectives.

    the widest riverthe most important decision
  • A definite article is used in quantity expressions in this pattern:
    quantifier + of + the + noun.

    many of the textbooksnot much of the paper
    some of the watermost of the students
    all of the peoplea few of the photographs

    These expressions can also be used without the phrase of the.

    many textbooksnot much paper
    some watermost students
    all peoplea few photographs
  • A definite article is used before the name of a group of people or a nationality. No article is used before the name of a language.

The Swedish are proud of their ancestors, the Vikings.
She learned to speak Swedish when she lived in Stockholm.

  • A definite article is used when an adjective is used without a noun to mean “people who are . . .”

Both the young and the old will enjoy this movie.
The poor have many problems.

  • A definite article is used before a non-count noun or a plural noun when it is followed by a modifier. No article is used when these nouns appear alone.

The rice that I bought today is in the bag.
Rice is a staple in many countries.
Trees provide shade.
The trees in this park are mostly evergreens.

  • A definite article is used before the name of a field of study followed by an of phrase. If a field is used alone, or is preceded by an adjective, no article is used.
    the literature of the twentieth centuryliterature
    the history of the United StatesAmerican history
  • Definite articles are used before the “formal” names of nations, states, and cities. (These usually contain of phrases.) No articles are used before the common names of nations, states, and cities.
the United States of AmericaAmerica
the state of MontanaMontana
the city of PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia
  • Definite articles are used before most plural geographic names: the names of groups of lakes, mountains, and islands. No article is used before the names of individual lakes, mountains, and islands.
    the Great LakesLake Powell
    the Rocky MountainsMount Washington
    the Hawaiian IslandsLong Island

In the Written Expression section, there are three main types of errors involving articles:

A) Incorrect Article Choice

One of the most common errors is the use of a in place of an or vice versa. Fortunately, this is also the easiest type of error to detect. Another error is a or an used in place of the, or the in place of a or an.

Sample Item

A eclipse (A) of the Sun (B) may be either (C) total or partial (D).

(A) A eclipse
(B) the Sun
(C) either
(D) partial

The best answer is (A). An must be used before a noun beginning with a vowel sound such as eclipse.

Rose Bird was a first (A) woman in the history (B) of California to serve (C) on the (D) State Supreme Court.

(A) a first
(B) the history
(C) to serve
(D) the

The best choice is (A). In a phrase with an ordinal number (such as first), the definite article the must be used.

B) Incorrect Omission or Inclusion of an Article

Sometimes an article is used when none is needed, or one is omitted when one is required.

Sample Item

Slag consists of waste (A) materials and impurities which (B) rise to top (C) of melted metals (D).

(A) waste
(B) which
(C) to top
(D) melted metal

The best answer is (C). The definite article the should not be omitted from the phrase to the top of.

The most (A) asteroids are (B) beyond the (C) orbit of the planet (D) Mars.

(A) The most
(B) are
(C) the
(D) the planet

The best choice is (A). Definite article are used only before quantity expressions that contain of phrases. (Most asteroids or Most of the asteroids are both correct in this sentence.)

C) Use of a Definite Article in Place of a Possessive

A definite article may be incorrectly used in place of a possessive word–its, his, her, or their.

Sample Item

The Ozark Mountains of (A) Arkansas are (B) famous (C) for the (D) rugged beauty.

(A) of
(B) are
(C) famous
(D) the

The best answer is (D). The should correctly read their because the sentence refers to the beauty belonging to the Ozark Mountains.

Exercise 40.1

Exercise 40.2

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