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November 7, 1999 - Articles - 2002-02-06

INTRO: Now VOA's Wordmasters Rosanne Skirble and Avi Arditti tackle three little words that spell trouble for some of their listeners.

AA: Ivan Huziak from Croatia, writes, "How can I know when to use the definite article and when to use the indefinite article."

RS: Articles are the words "a," "an" and "the"

which come before a noun and modify or describe it.

AA: The reason Ivan is having trouble is that articles don't exist in Croatian, or in a lot of other languages.

RS: For Nirmal, Nilima and Alka from Nepal, the problem is not how to use articles but when to pronounce t-h-e "thuh" and when to pronounce it "thee." Keep listening, you'll find out! AA: "Thuh" or "thee" is called the definite article because the noun it goes with refers to something specific. As in, "Put the book on the table in the dining room."

RS: ... not just any old book on any old table, we're talking about specific things. And which room?

AA: The dining room. The definite article is also used to point out something that is one a kind -- like "the moon" or "the earth."

RS: Indefinite articles don't refer to a specific noun. I might say to Avi, "give me a pen" meaning any pen, unless there's one I really have my eyes on. "A" - which most Americans pronounce "uh" -- goes before a consonant while "an" goes before a vowel.

AA: So, we could go to the grocery store to buy "a bunch of carrots," "a head of lettuce," "a loaf of bread" and "a box of cereal."

RS: We might also buy "an apple," "an apricot" and "an orange."

AA: Zarina Hock learned these simple rules in a British school as a child in India. She grew up bilingual in English and Hindi. Hindi, by the way, also does not use articles.

RS: Today Zarina Hock enforces the rules of American English. She's senior editor for the National Council of Teachers of English, a group with almost 80-thousand members.

AA: She says articles can be hard to master because of the differences between British and American English.


ZARINA HOCK: "In British English, for example, we would say, `in future' I'll do this and in American English you would say, `the future.' Or in British English you would say, `in hospital' or you `catch cold and in American English it would be `catch a cold' or you've got `a toothache.' RS: Zarina Hock says grammar books are good but don't explain the hundreds of exceptions to the rules for using articles.


ZARINA HOCK: "It's very difficult for a non- English speaker to know because some of this is purely idiomatic. For example, you can say. "He's gone to jail. No one says `to the jail.' If I said to you, `the jail' you would say, `which one,' right? Because it's `the jail' meaning a specific jail that we're talking about."

RS: "Which brings us to the next subject which was a question from another listener about the differences in pronunciation between /thee/ and /thuh/. What is the rule behind that?"

ZARINA HOCK: "That one I thought was pretty clear. You use /thee/ when you have the article in front of a vowel, and use /thuh/ Voice of America because you have a consonant. The interesting thing is that you also emphasize /thee/ when you're talking about `it is /thee/ program to listen to.'"

AA: "Now, do you call yourself, the senior editor or just senior editor?"

ZARINA HOCK: "If I were the senior editor I would be really giving myself airs (inflating my job title) wouldn't I? No, I'm just senior editor. But I am the only senior editor we have."

RS: Our thanks to Zarina Hock, senior editor for the National Council of Teachers of English.

And also a special thanks to Ivan Huziak from Croatia and to Nirmal, Nilima and Alka from Nepal for sending us your questions.

AA: Having a problem with American English? Let us know. You can reach us at or by snail mail at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20547 USA.

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "The Rain in Spain"/My Fair Lady