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.’
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!