What are articles?
Articles are special modifiers that appear before nouns or noun phrases. Like other adjectives, they help clarify the meaning of the noun in your sentence. There are only two articles in the English language: the and a (and its variant an, used before a word that starts with a vowel sound). A noun may also appear without an article in front of it. If you are a native speaker, you will probably know which article to place in front of a noun without having to think about it. If, however, English is your second language, knowing which article to use where can be difficult. Learning and consciously applying a few basic principles can help you improve your article use significantly. With time and a lot of practice, using articles correctly will become second nature.
Where exactly do articles go?
Articles belong in front of all other modifiers preceding a noun:
a large urban universitythe first female college principal
There are other special modifiers called determiners or markers that may appear in front of a noun phrase. Do not use an article if you also intend to use any of the following markers directly before the noun: this, that, these, those, my, his, her, your, our, their, its, any, either, each, every, many, few, several, some, all.
A useful set of rules for using articles
You can determine which article to place in front of almost any noun by answering the following three questions: Is the noun countable or uncountable? Is it singular or plural? Is it definite or indefinite?
- A noun is countable if you can have more than one instance of it. The word exam is countable because you can have, say, four exams scheduled at the end of the year. The word concentration, however, is uncountable, because it would not make sense to speak of having four concentrations, even though you will need a lot of concentration to study for all four exams. Many words have both countable and uncountable meanings, depending on the sentence.
- Knowing whether the particular use of a noun is singular or plural is quite straightforward. Just ask the question, Am I referring to more than one instance of something?
- A noun is definite when it is clear to your reader which specific instance or instances of an entity you are referring to; otherwise it is indefinite. Often the first use of a noun is indefinite and subsequent uses are definite.
When I started university, I had a phobia about exams. I conquered the phobia by writing lots of them.
Here, the first sentence establishes for the reader the existence of the writer’s former phobia. By the second sentence, the reader knows exactly which phobia the writer is talking about—the one about exams just referred to in the previous sentence. The first use of a noun can be definite if the reader can figure out from context or some other clue just which instance of an entity the writer is referring to.
The point of my professor’s exams was to make sure we understood the course material.
Note that the prepositional phrase following point narrows down its meaning to something very specific, while the course material can refer only to the material in this particular professor’s course. Both nouns are therefore definite.
Once you have answered all three questions, you can use the following chart to help you choose the correct article. (The symbol Ø means no article.)
e.g. I need to study hardest for the exam that I write next Wednesday.
e.g. I have an exam to write this afternoon, and then my summer holiday finally begins.
e.g. The exams that I wrote last year were much easier.
e.g. Exams are an inescapable fact of life for most university students.
e.g. The importance of studying hard cannot be exaggerated.
e.g. Do not attach importance to memorizing facts.
Observe the following: If the noun is definite, it always takes the article the; if the noun is indefinite it never takes the article the. If you don’t have the chart in front of you, you can still often get the article right just by remembering that simple rule of thumb.
Using articles to refer to classes of objects
Nouns can refer to an entire group of similar objects, sometimes called a class. There are three ways to refer to a class: using (1) the definite singular, (2) the indefinite singular, or (3) the indefinite plural. Here is an example of each:
- The lion is a majestic animal.
- A lion is a majestic animal.
- Lions are majestic animals.
All three sentences convey the same meaning with slightly different emphasis. The first sentence takes one lion as a representative of all lions and then makes its assertion about that representative. The second sentence in effect states, take any lion you like from the class of all lions, and what you say about it will be true of all other lions. The third sentence directly makes its assertion about all lions. This third usage is probably the most common. Choose whichever usage sounds best in your sentence.
Using articles in front of proper nouns
The rules in the chart do not work in all situations. In particular, they are not much help in the case of proper nouns. Most proper nouns, however, are governed by simple rules. For example, do not place an article in front of the names of people.
Stephen Harper is the twenty-second prime minister of Canada.
Most countries, like Canada in the sentence above, do not take articles. Here are two noteworthy exceptions: the United States, and the United Kingdom. Rivers, mountain ranges, seas, and oceans should be preceded by the article the: the Amazon River, the Rocky Mountains, the Ural Sea, the Pacific Ocean. Lakes, on the other hand, don’t usually take an article: Lake Louise, Lake Ontario.
Find out more about articles by visiting the University of Toronto’s page on special cases in the use of the definite article.
Acknowledgements to Marjatta Holt for her chart on article use.
Today, we continue our series on ways to improve your writing by examining another major problem we found in our client’s writing. After style issues, grammatical errors comprised 21% of all writing errors! In this post, let’s look at what mistakes were most common and how to fix them. We also provide you a curated list of additional resources that will help you proofread and revise grammatical mistakes and strengthen your writing skills!
What are the most common grammatical errors in writing?
While there are kinds of grammar problems, we will focus on the top 5 most common mistakes.
- Determiners: words that come before a noun or noun phrase and tells us if the noun is general or specific and often specifies quantity. This category includes articles (a, an, the) and words such as this, that, every, each, which, and that. The most common issue concerns knowing which determiner to use or omit and when to do so.
- Prepositions: words that precede a noun or pronoun and shows that word’s relationship to another word in the same sentence or clause. The hardest part about prepositions is that there aren’t many rules. When in doubt, use the tools we list below to double-check expressions!
- Subject-Verb Agreement: a concept that requires a subject and verb to agree in number (singular/plural). Problems most commonly arise when the subject is a noun phrase that contains a prepositional phrase.
- Verb Form: Six typical verb forms exist: the base (dictionary form), the infinitive (to+base), the 3rd person singular (verb+s), the present participle (verb+ing), the past simple, and the past participle. Some verbs have fewer forms while the verb “be” has eight! The main sources of verb form confusion come from using the wrong participle and overusing the present participle (verb+ing form).
- Verb Tense Shifts: a problematic situation where we talk about one topic at a particular point in time but use two or more tenses to talk about it in the same clause. The rule is we should always use one tense or start a new clause or sentence to avoid verb tense shifting.
The following is a graph depicting the frequency of all grammatical errors surveyed during our study.
As you can see from the bar graph above, determiner-related problems constitute almost 60% of all the grammatical errors we found! In particular, an overwhelming majority of the issues involved article use.
Why is article usage the most common grammatical writing mistake?
Articles such as “a,” “an,” and “the” are tiny words, and, yet, they play a significant role in telling us the specificity of a noun. For many of you who are ESL speakers, your native language might not have articles, so we can understand why it would be difficult to decide which article or determiner to use when writing in or speaking English. Article use can be tricky, but, hey, we do have some good news: at least the English language doesn’t have gender specific articles like many romance languages!
Apart from not understanding the role of an article because it may be absent in your native tongue, another reason for article misuse is uncertainty about whether a noun is countable. While there are many exceptions to article use rules, the ones the English language does have largely relate to a noun’s countability. For additional information about how to use articles correctly, check out our detailed article and visual flowchart [click the link for the full article]!
Why is using the correct article important?
Articles denote specificity and introduce context for a noun. That’s a lot for a word that has only one to three letters, right? To illustrate the importance of articles, let’s look at the following scenario.
Let’s say you’re talking to someone and you want to tell them you desire a car. You can say one of two statements: “I really want a car” or “I really want the car.” But do you want a car (any car) or do you want the car (a specific one you’ve seen or heard about)? Perhaps you want the latter, so you say, “I really want the car.” However, what if the person you’re speaking to doesn’t know about this dream car you’ve wanted for as long as you can remember? You would have confused the other person with your statement because you provided no details to clarify which car is “the car.” Likewise, if you had simply said, “I really want a car,” your listener would still be uncertain about which car unless you provided further details.
So, how do you fix this problem? You can correct this mistake in two ways: (1) start with “a car” and then explain it by using “the car” in a subsequent sentence that elaborates on which one or (2) use “the car” followed by a restrictive clause that precisely identifies the car you want. For example:
(1) I really want a car. In fact, I want one exactly like the car I saw parked in front of Joe’s house yesterday.
(2) I really want the car I saw parked in front of Joe’s house yesterday.
How can I fix the following common grammatical errors?
1. Determiner Misuse
To decide which article to use, first decide if you have a countable or uncountable noun. Then follow the rules in the attached flowchart and article. In short:
- If you have a noun + prepositional phrase that pinpoints one specific noun, use “the” in front of the noun.
- If you introduce a specific noun for the first time, use “a” or “an,” followed by “the” for subsequent mentions.
- If you mean “any” of that noun, use “a” or “an.”
- If you mean “all” members of that noun class (each and every one, generally), then, for countable nouns, use the plural + no article. For uncountable nouns, use the singular + no article.
- If you mean a category as a whole (and not each and every member of that category), use “the.”
- ✗The apple is delicious. → ✓ Apples are delicious.
- ✗ I read the new book. The book was fascinating. → ✓ I read a new book. The book was fascinating.
- ✗The water is healthy for you. → ✓Water is healthy for you.
- ✗ I bought the water yesterday, and now I will put the water in the fridge. → ✓ I bought water yesterday, and now I will put the water in the fridge.
- Demonstratives (This/That/These/Those)
Be careful about using demonstratives by themselves to start a sentence. If the context is unclear, make sure to add the noun after the demonstrative.
- this + singular noun (something nearby or recently mentioned)
- that + singular noun (something “over there”)
- these + plural noun
- those + plural noun
- ✗This is good for you. → ✓This exercise is good for you.
- ✗ We should adopt a new policy. That policy would help us streamline operations. → ✓ We should adopt a new policy. This policy would help us streamline operations.
- ✗That would make her happy. → ✓ That promotion would make her happy.
- ✗ Cats are feisty. Those animals are very independent. → ✓ Cats are feisty. These animals are very independent.
- ✗ What do you want to do with these boxes over there? → ✓ What do you want to do with those boxes over there?
- Other vs. Another
The words “other” and “another” to refer to alternatives, more of something or a different thing. Click on the image below to see a flowchart showing how to use these words. Essentially, the difference between “other” and “another” depends on the number of choices or possibilities you refer to.
- ✗ I have two books left. Take this one. Thanks, but I want the another. → ✓ I have two books left. Take this one. Thanks, but I want the other one.
2. Incorrect Prepositions
- Prepositions in the English language are tricky. The good news is that if you are trying to reduce wordiness, you can often replace verbal and prepositional phrases with strong verbs! When you need to use relation-building words, however, here are a few tips:
- Prepositions in idiomatic expressions are fixed. They may not follow the normal use patterns for a preposition, so when in doubt, double-check a dictionary like Merriam-Webster’s.
- Never use two prepositions back-to-back. We often do so in speech, but in writing, this bad habit should be avoided. For example, “I had to get off of the train.” → “I got off the train.”
- Though we have few rules about choosing the right preposition, click on the attachment listed at the top of this page to see a list of commonly used prepositions (general meanings and example sentences included).
Below is an infographic prepared by Grammar.net, which highlights the differences between 14 pairs of commonly confused prepositions.
- You can use sites like Google Book’s N-gram Viewer, which scans text in books published from 1800 to 2000. It then plots how often a phrase occurs. If you are debating about which preposition to use, type in the various versions of the phrase you want (separated by commas) and hit “enter.” The frequency of the phrases will be plotted on a graph, and you should choose the phrase with the highest occurrence as of 2000 (unless you want to use language specific to an earlier time!). As you can see from the sample search result below, the phrase, “to conduct research on,” use the correct verb-preposition combination.
3. Subject-Verb Agreement
- Keep in mind that verbs must agree in number with their subjects. The most common error involving subject-verb agreement arises from using prepositional phrases. Remember that the verb must agree with the noun before the preposition.
- ✓Noun1 + Preposition + Noun2 + Verb that agrees with Noun1
- ✗ The way in which we communicate with others have changed dramatically. → ✓ The way in which we communicate with others has changed dramatically.
- For additional resources, please check out the following links:
4. Verb Form Confusion
- The two most common errors associated with verb form are using the wrong participle and overusing the present participle.
- Wrong Verb Participle
- Be careful with irregular verbs. When in doubt, use a dictionary like Merriam-Webster to confirm the correct spelling.
- British and American English may have different spellings for certain verb participles. For example, “learned” is used in the US, while “learned” and “learnt” are both accepted in the UK.
- Present Participle Overuse
- Generally, use the present simple tense to discuss general facts, habits, and the state or condition of something.
✗ The sun is always rising in the east. → ✓ The sun always rises in the east.
- Present progressive (verb+ing) is used for temporary actions and to express intent to do a future action. It is used when you want to point out that something is happening during the progression of another action.
✗ I visit my sister this week. → ✓ I am visiting my sister this week.
5. Verb Tense Shifting
- When talking about a topic, verbs in the same clause should use the same tense. Mixing tenses can confuse the reader about the time covered by the sentence.
- ✗ Joe watched the movie and laughs out loud. [Joe finished the movie and is now laughing? This sentence doesn't make sense, right?] → ✓ “Joe watched the movie and laughed out loud,” [Joe completed these actions, and logically, did so at the same time] or “Joe is watching the movie and is laughing out loud” [Joe is currently performing these actions simultaneously].
- While talking about a specific subject, double-check tenses in consecutive clauses or sentences.
- ✗ Joe eats chocolate whenever he got upset. → ✓ “Joe eats chocolate whenever he gets upset,” [Joe currently has this habit] or “Joe ate chocolate whenever he got upset” [Joe no longer has this habit].
- Of course, sometimes it makes sense to mix tenses, particularly when you are showing a progression of actions.
- ✓ I am editing the book that I wrote. [Naturally, to edit a book, it must already be written.
- For additional resources, please click on the following links:
We hope that the above information provides you with a good overview of how to correct the grammar issues in your writing. Don’t feel overwhelmed by the long list! It’s impossible for us to remember all these rules each time we write. Rather, focus on one aspect until you perfect it, then move onto the next. Also, feel free to check out our language editing services to help you clean up these types of errors and more!