What word appears most often in English?
It's "the," also known as the definite article.
Its partner, the indefinite article "a", is also among the top 10 most frequent words in English.
According to Professor Elka Todeva of the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont, "a" and "the" are also some of the most difficult words for learners to figure out how to use without some assistance.
"A," "an" and "the" are called articles. Why are these small words so hard to learn? More than 200 languages do not have articles. Other languages have articles but use them differently than English does. As a result, figuring out the logic of English articles can be challenging.
Professor Todeva says English article usage falls into certain patterns. A basic understanding of common patterns can make learning articles easier.
Fairy tales capture one such powerful pattern, which Elka Todeva calls the a/the switch. The a/the switch occurs between the first and second mention. It is a shift from new to already familiar information.
Listen for the articles as she reads an example. Pay attention to the way "a" turns into "the" with the second mention of the old man and the old woman.
"Once upon a time, there was an old man and an old woman who lived in a little cottage in a vast open field. The old woman and the old man were very hungry, so the old woman decided to bake a gingerbread man."
Before we explore this pattern and fairy tales further, let us look at some basic rules for article usage.
"A" and "an" are indefinite articles used before non-specific members of a group or category of nouns. The article "a" appears before singular nouns starting with a consonant sound. For example, "I ate a banana." The article "an" comes before singular nouns beginning with a vowel sound. For example, "Give me an apple."
"The" is called a definite article. "The" appears before nouns which are specific members of a category as in, "I want to see the movie George Clooney just made." Also use "the" with previously mentioned nouns. For example, "We went to a movie last night. The movie was called Spy." Use "the" with unique things like the sun, the moon, the front door, and the tallest man in the world.
The zero article
In some situations, there is no article before a noun. Grammarians call this the "zero article." The zero article appears before proper nouns, names like Picasso and John Lennon. It also goes with names of places and institutions which consist of a proper name and another noun, as in Michigan State University.
There is also no article before the names of days, months, seasons and holidays. There is no article before geographical names like Europe, Italy, Tokyo, and Lake Superior.
The "zero article" applies to names of languages and nationalities, as with Chinese or English. For example, "Spanish is spoken in Spain." But if you are describing the people of that country, use the definite article. "The Spanish are known for being friendly."
The zero article also goes with names of sports and academic subjects.
The "a/the switch"
Professor Todeva is both a learner and teacher of English. She says the human brain loves patterns and finding logic behind things. She encourages teachers and learners to explore grammatical patterns in fun, engaging ways. She calls this "grammaring." Let's look at some common patterns in article usage.
Professor Todeva takes us back to fairy tales, or traditional stories, to demonstrate how the switch from "a" to "the" works.
"This particular pattern is very beautifully illustrated in most English fairy tales and in many jokes as well. Most fairy tales in English start with 'Once upon a time' … there is suspense, there is sweet anticipation, we are not sure what the story is about yet; we expect something exciting and something new, thus the use of the indefinite article at the beginning of most fairy tales as in the following piece from The Gingerbread Man:
"Once upon a time, there was an old man and an old woman who lived in a little cottage - first mention - in a vast open field."
Here, the story teller uses the indefinite articles because the characters are new to the listener or reader. When the information becomes familiar, the story teller uses the definite article, "the."
"The old woman and the old man were very hungry, so the old woman decided to bake a gingerbread man."
You might notice the "a/the switch" in most jokes. Here is an example.
"A man walks into a doctor's office. He has a cucumber up his nose, a carrot in his left ear and a banana in his right ear.
"What's wrong with me?" he asks the doctor (because it's already implied).
And the doctor says, "You're not eating properly."
Notice how the joke sets the stage with new information first. It starts with "a" before switching to "the."
Another important pattern involves general statements. General statements refer to all, or many members of a group. For example, "Politicians only care about money." You will often see general statements on bumper stickers. These are small labels on the back of cars that express the owner's feelings or opinions.
You might see bumper stickers that say, "Well-behaved women rarely make history" or "Teachers touch the future." Notice that general statements use the zero article.
Here's another general statement that you will probably agree with: "Articles are challenging for English learners." Look for a future Everyday Grammar with more tips for using articles.
Take Professor Todeva's advice and let your brain pay attention to some of the patterns that we just explored. Happy learning and "grammaring" with the English language!
For VOA Learning English Everyday Grammar,
I'm Jonathan Evans.
And I'm Jill Robbins.
Dr. Jill Robbins and Dr. Elka Todeva wrote this story for Learning English. Adam Brock was the editor.
Do you have difficulty with those articles? Let us know in the Comments and on our Facebook page, thanks!
Words in This Story
definite article - gramm. the word the used in English to refer to a specific person or thing
indefinite article - gramm. the word a or an used in English to refer to a person or thing that is not identified or specified
article - gramm. a word (such as a, an, or the) that is used with a noun to show whether or not the noun refers to a specific person or thing
switch - v. a change from one thing to another
gingerbread man – n. a cookie flavored with ginger and honey or molasses, usually in the shape of a human
Now it's your turn. Try filling in the articles in the story below.
Try filling in the articles in this fairy tale to test your knowledge.
Once upon a time there was __ good, wise King who had __ very lovely daughter. __ Princess was so pretty that poets vowed she was fairer than __ fairest rose in __ royal gardens.
Basic Uses of Articles in English
Indefinite Article (a or an)
Singular, non-specific nouns; I am a teacher; She has a dog.
Use a with singular nouns beginning with a consonant sound: a user (sounds like 'yoo-zer,' i.e. begins with a consonant 'y' sound, so 'a' is used); a university; a unicycle
an with nouns starting with silent "h": an hour
a with nouns starting with a pronounced "h": a horse
Definite Article (the)
Specific plural or singular nouns; non-count nouns: I spilled the milk; names of rivers, oceans and seas: the Nile, the Pacific
points on the globe: the Equator, the North Pole
geographical areas: the Middle East, the West
deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas: the Sahara, the Persian Gulf, the Black Forest, the Iberian Peninsula
Zero Article (nothing)
Proper nouns such as Picasso, Paul, Ringo, John, George; names of places and institutions which consist of a proper name and another noun, e.g. Michigan State University, Trafalgar Square, Penn Station; names of days, months, seasons and holidays, e.g. on Sunday, in March, at Christmas; many geographical names, e.g. Europe, Italy, Tokyo, Lake Superior; certain prepositional phrases, e.g. at peace, by heart, by train/car.
Answers to the quiz:
The Frog Prince
Once upon a time there was a good, wise King who had a very lovely daughter. The Princess was so pretty that poets vowed she was fairer than the fairest rose in the royal gardens.
From The Golden Book of Grimms' Fairy Tales. Golden Press, New York 1973.