How to use articles: another look (2)

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by Liz Walter

Last month I looked at some of the questions raised in response to my 2015 post on articles. This post continues to answer some of these interesting points.

1) Plural nouns

Someone asked why we can say ‘Books are important’ without an article. Obviously, we can’t say ‘a’ or ‘an’ in front of plural nouns because they are only used for singulars. For ‘the’, the rule for plurals is the same as for singular nouns: we use it when we are referring to something specific, for example something that has already been mentioned. In the sentence ‘Books are important’, we are talking about books in general. But we would need ‘the’ for a sentence such as ‘I read all the books in the library.’ because in that case we are speaking about specific books.

2) The following

Similarly, someone asked why we use the phrase ‘the following’ before a list of items, even though it’s the first use of ‘following’. It is because, again, we know the specific things we are talking about: the items in the list we are about to read. It is useful to learn ‘the following’ as a phrase because (with that meaning) that is how it always appears.

3) ‘The’ for superlatives

This was a very good point raised by one reader. Remember that you need ‘the’ to form superlative adjectives in English, especially when they come before the noun: ‘the biggest house’, ‘the most important person’, etc. When the adjective is after the noun, ‘the’ is sometimes omitted: ‘His house is (the) biggest’, ‘This person is (the) most important.’

4) Ellipsis

Another interesting question was about whether or not you need articles for every item in a list, for example in a sentence like: ‘You can catch a train, a plane or a ferry.’ It is not incorrect to repeat the articles, but it is not necessary. We call it ‘ellipsis’ when you miss out a word that would otherwise be repeated, and this would be completely normal and correct: ‘You can catch a train, plane or ferry.’

5) President/CEO/queen, etc.

For positions that can only be filled by one person, it is possible to omit ‘the’. So we can correctly say either ‘He is the president’ or ‘He is president.’ However, this only applies after the verb ‘to be’, so ‘the’ is needed in sentences such as ‘I met the president.’

6) Lunch/dinner, etc.

Someone correctly pointed out that I had been too general when I said that we don’t use articles before meals. I was thinking of the most common examples, e.g. ‘Is it time for lunch?’ or ‘I had chicken for dinner.’ However, if we use an adjective before the meal or a phrase after it, we do use articles: ‘It was a delicious lunch.’ ‘The dinner was burnt.’ We also use articles when we think of the meal as an event: ‘She is hosting a dinner for the president.’

7) Wh- questions

Remember that question words such as ‘which’ and ‘what’ are determiners themselves, so you do not need an article as well: ‘What language do you speak best?’

Articles cause so many problems for learners, but I hope that these posts have explained them a bit more. Do let me know if you have any other questions!

56 thoughts on “How to use articles: another look (2)

  1. Alex Rose

    Thank you for the fabulous article. As far as I’m concerned the best way of learning articles’ usage is to read books; and the more you read, the better is your understanding of them.

  2. E.M.

    This is just the thing! I’ve stumbled upon many different ways of using articles but never could quite figure out which ones are correct. Until now! Thanks a million 🙂

  3. Ernestine Williams

    Great article on “articles. ” I will have to read it again to fully understand it all. Lots of information for me to grasp at once. But very helpful. Thank you.

  4. vinay kumar panduga

    This was the information for which I was searching the whole sky
    thank for giving such precious information…

    1. Ricardo Lira

      Both a and the can perfectly be used in that sentence. The context tells it all. Ex: two friends having fun, one on a horse and the other on a bike. So you can say: John was riding on a black horse and Peter on a bike. But if you think about a horse race and you’re not sure who was riding which horse, you can say: John was riding the black horse.

  5. Mateusz

    I’ve wondered about ellipsis concerning articles lately, and now it’s absolutely clear. Thanks for that.
    What’s more, the specific point on the nouns describing positions at the top of the corporate ladder must have resolved doubts formed in many readers’ minds, as both versions – with and without ‘the’- are found in various texts. Many thanks-)

    1. Liz Walter

      That depends if you’re British or American. First of all, we don’t ‘join’ university, we ‘go to’ or ‘start’ it. In British English there is no article. In US English, I believe they use ‘the’.

    1. Lara

      In fact we do use ‘the’ when we mention the lake’s name without the word ‘Lake’, or when its name is followed by the word ‘Lake’:
      The Victoria / The Victoria Lake.
      But when the word ‘Lake’ precedes the lake’s name ‘the’ is omitted:
      Lake Victoria.

  6. Alisa

    Could you tell me which of the variants is correct?
    1) The more you do, the better your health is.
    2) The more you do, the better is your health.

    1. Liz Walter

      As a transitive verb, there isn’t really a difference. We climbed (up) the mountain. As an intransitive verb, we don’t usually use ‘up’, e.g. temperatures climbed (not climbed up).

  7. Binh Doan

    Dear Ms Liz Walter,

    I am appreciated so much for your great writings about articles. I remember well your “number one rule is this: if a word is countable (e.g. one book, two books), you must always use an article (or my, his, etc.)”. But today, when I read a CNN news from with its headline: “LG Display’s 65-inch TV rolls up like wrapping paper”, I has been confused about wrapping paper without any article. It seems that the “wrapping paper” is an uncountable noun, doesn’t it? Could you please spend your spare time to explain it? Thank you in advance and have a nice weekend to you.

  8. Michelle Hs

    Dear Ms Liz Walter,

    I have been confused about Seasons and Festivals. I can see both with “the” or nothing. e.g the spring / spring, the Chinese New Year, the Christmas/ Christmas… Please help me out. Thanks a lot.

    1. Liz Walter

      ‘the’ is optional with spring, summer etc. Also with Chinese New Year. However, we wouldn’t use ‘the’ before Christmas unless we were talking about a specific one, eg. ‘the Christmas we spent in Moscow’.

  9. xibmc79

    Dear Liz,

    I have a question regarding the use of ‘the’ before the superlatives. I am usually inclined towards using ‘the’ before ‘best’. However, I have also seen variations. I am sure you have too.
    We take this for example:

    “There’s one I like best.” …The New Yorker, article by Anna Russell (13.12.17).

    When I see such examples I am completely befuddled.

    When do we not use ‘the’ before ‘best’?

    1. Liz Walter

      That’s a very good question! I think that we often miss ‘the’ when it comes after a verb other than ‘be’, and especially in a common phrase like ‘like best’. We can also say for example ‘This treatment works best’. But after ‘be’, I think I’m correct in saying that you always need the: ‘This is the best treatment.’ I hope that helps!

      1. HS Kim

        Dear Liz,

        Thank you for your posting. You are a great teacher.

        By the way, when you mention missing ‘the’ after a verb, it rings a bell to me that actually the part of speech for “best” after a verb is an adverb. So we don’t use the article in the cases of “like best” or “works best”.

        Thank you for your valuable time for English learners.

    1. Liz Walter

      It depends: Definitely not the first one. The second one if it’s unlikely the person you are talking to has any idea that you were catching a train, the third one if you can reasonably assume that the person you’re talking to knew you were on a train, or that you regularly catch a train.

  10. Hello ma’am , will you please answer these questions.1._____ horse runs fast. Here is it necessary to use the? 2.All ____ boys were present.3 .He is___M.Phil.

    1. Liz Walter

      1. Yes, you need ‘the’, but it would be much more natural to say ‘Horses run fast’. 2 Yes, the 3 an, but you’d be more likely to say ‘He has an M Phil’

  11. Denis

    Dear Liz,

    Speaking of ellipsis, would it be okay to omit the second ‘my’ before ‘gift of the gab’ in the following sentence: ‘The skill set I’ve been equipped with, along with my human touch and gift of the gab, gives me an edge over other attorneys.’?

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