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Te okropne, małe słówka: a, an i the - Those Horrible Little Words: a, an and the

There are three pesky little words in the English language that cause my students no end of difficulty, they even trip up my university students, and my CPE students - much to my chagrin! The most common mistake is forgetting to use them, as one of my younger students says "they are small ugly and horrible and I can't remember where to put them." You may have already guessed that these three little words are a, an and the.

A, an and the are articles. They fall into two categories, definite articles and indefinite articles. Unfortunately, this two category concept is easy to grasp, it's when to use them and why, that creates problems for my Polish students. The primary cause, I think, for this lack of understanding, is that articles are not present in the Polish language. Therefore, Poles are automatically at a disadvantage, because you can't 'feel' where they are supposed to be.

So, let's look at a few basic rules of when to use articles. We'll start with indefinite articles first, these articles are a or an. We use a or an when we are referring to a thing or person that we are mentioning for the first time, either in speech, or in writing. For example, a dog, a boy. If the word happens to begin with a vowel, or a vowel sound, then an is used. For example, an ugly girl, or an apple.

Unfortunately this is not the only instance when a or an is used, at other times you might want to talk about something/someone without being specific, for example, 'a woman was seen walking away in a red coat', or because you don't have enough information to be specific, for example, 'I popped into a shop to buy a drink on my way home.'

Articles are also used to give definitions, for example, 'an elephant has a very long trunk.' As well as for professions, for example, 'I am an English teacher, my little brother is a police officer, my mother is a nurse, and my father is an accountant.'

Sometimes articles are also used to express quantity, for example 'I need a needle and thread to sew a button onto my shirt.' Alternatively, 'I don't know why I've got a headache; I only drank a glass of wine!' That is, unless there is a contrast involved, in which case, you drop the article and use one instead, for example, 'there is only one glass of wine left in the bottle.' Or, 'I have seven nieces and one nephew.' Or, 'there were ten naked men in the sauna and only one woman.'

There are lots of rules that govern the usage of the definite article the, what I am going to try to do here, is set out examples for the correct usage of this pesky little word as clearly as possible.

The can be used to specifically refer back to something, someone or an event. For instance, 'a woman walked through the car park, looking carefully at a row of offices, the woman then crossed the road in order to enter one of the offices.'

The can be used to refer to something that we already know about, for example, 'let's take the kids to the playground' in this instance you know the children, maybe they are related to you, or you are looking after them, either way, you have a prior relationship with them. Here the playground refers to one you visit regularly.

We use the when we want to generalize about a whole class or species. For example, 'the wooly mammoth is now extinct.' 'The chicken egg can be cooked in a variety of different ways.' 'The elephant is hunted for its ivory tusks.'

The is also used when a generalization is followed by an adjective being used as a noun, indicating nationality, or a class of people. For instance, 'the English drink a lot of tea with milk.' Or 'the Dutch wear wooden shoes.'

We also use the definite article when talking about geographical places: names of rivers, the Thames, the Mississippi River, and the Nile. Groups of islands, the Canary Islands, the Hebrides. Seas and oceans, the North Sea, the Atlantic, the English Channel. Mountain ranges, the Tatras, the Alps,, and deserts, for example the Sahara.

We also use the definite article when talking about public institutions, facilities and groups, for example, The Houses of Parliament, The British Museum, The Sheraton, The Hilton Hotel, and The Catholic Church. We even use the definite article when we refer to newspapers, for example, The Times, The Independent, The Guardian.

If we want to refer to parts of the body in an impersonal way, we also use the definite article. For example 'Sheila hit him over the head.' 'Ronald was stabbed in the back.' 'Stephen is a pain in the bum.' 'The left side of her mother's body was paralysed.'

When we pluralise names according to geography, family, or even teams we also use the definite article, for example, the Netherlands, the British Isles, the Atkinson's, the Harding's, the Red Sox, the Wildcats.

Zero articles are when no article is needed. You never use articles when talking about the names of languages; you would never say "she was learning the English." Or "he can speak the Chinese." You don't use articles when talking about sports, for example, "she plays tennis and practices judo" "he practices kickboxing and yoga' and academic subjects, "he is studying art history and photography at university." Or, "Jenny is studying biotechnology in Holland".

I hope you have found this article useful to read. What I have done is to present you with the basic rules of article usage in the English language. Unfortunately there is no easy way to improve your grammar skills, it just takes practice, practice, and you guessed it, more practice.

One of the fun exercises I like to do with my students after going through article grammar is to photocopy an interesting text from a magazine, and then tipex out all the articles. After doing this, I photocopy it, and get my students to put the articles back in. This serves several purposes. One, it's good practice, and reviews everything my students have learned about articles and highlights any weak areas. Two, the text is engaging - so it keeps my students interest, and becomes more like a fun puzzle than a test. Three, my students begin to develop a "feel" for which article goes where. Perhaps this is something you would like to consider doing for yourself? Then using the grammar rules set out above you could try to complete the exercise.

Whatever you decide to do, unfortunately practice is the key. There are no magic formulas when it comes to grammar. Good luck.


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