Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Troublesome Trio: Articles in the English Language



The word ‘the’ is the most commonly used word in the English language. We don’t give it a second thought; it’s there, like the air we breathe or the water we drink. Actually, it’s not really a word like ‘butter’ or ‘table’, since it can not even stand on its own two feet. If a ‘the’ walked through the door, you wouldn’t know what you were dealing with. At least with a ‘table’ or a ‘chair’, you know where you stand, but a ‘the’? You’d be waiting for the rest of the retinue to appear before you could make sense of the visitor.

The ‘the’, together with the ‘a’ and the ‘an’ make up the articles of the English language. Even though they are useless on their own, these little ‘function words’ pretty much ‘determine’ what people are talking about. If my husband came in and said ‘A guy just hit a car’ it might elicit a slight shoulder shrug, but if he said: ‘A guy just hit the car’, I would drop whatever I was doing and run outside to assess the damage.

Learning how to use articles properly is a nightmare for foreigners, especially if their native language doesn’t use articles. Chinese ESL learners often play it safe and omit the article completely rather than risk using them the wrong way. ‘Apple is good. I want book’, they’d say.

French has a lot more articles than English because words are either masculine or feminine. If you were French you would understand the impossibility of calling the sun a feminine thing, or the moon a masculine object, so it wouldn’t be proper to attach the ‘the’, willy-nilly to any word that came along. You would have to learn how to pair up the numerous articles ‘le, la, les, l’, un, une, des, du, de la, de l’’ with their corresponding gender and pray that you will get it right at least some of the time.

Luckily we all learn how to use these ‘determiners’ early on in life. Children quickly go from calling a four-legged animal ‘horsie’ to knowing the difference between ‘a horse in the field’ and ‘the horse that came running’. In school they will learn that there are definite and indefinite articles, which they immediately put to good use when trying to avoid blame: 'the cat ate my homework’.

Even though ‘The man (that was following me) attacked me’ is a lot more definite than ‘a man attacked me’, there are times when the use of the definite article is meant to have the opposite effect: 'The cheetah is the fastest animal on earth'. Here we are talking about all the cheetahs in the world. And why did Forest Gump, when asked where he was hit, say: ‘In the buttocks, Sir.’ Why not in my buttocks? Wouldn’t that have been a lot more definite?

The ‘the’ suddenly acquires special status when we go out to dinner. We don’t order ‘a steak’ or ‘a baked potato’, we say: “I’ll have the chicken”, as if one single chicken was prancing about in the kitchen and it would end up on your plate, no one else’s.

So you see, it's one big mess, unless you know the rules. But the rules are so specific that it would take a lifetime to memorize them. It would be like having to figure out how the engine in your car works every time you drive to work.

In other words, we just 'feel' our way to using articles correctly. We say: 'I have to go to the bathroom', not: 'I have to go to a bathroom'. You might never return from going to a bathroom. It might turn into an endless search for a bathroom that just exists in your mind.

Several kinds of nouns never use articles. We call this the ‘Zero article’. Obviously, you cannot use an indefinite article for plurals, and there are times when the 'the' doesn't make sense either. 'The children are loud' means something else than 'Children are loud'. You can see the rules for the zero article here.

It is on the border between two languages that the use of articles gets really weird. My mother lives in a place called ‘De Rekere’, an assisted living complex in Holland. Should I say ‘she lives in ‘the Rekere’ or ‘the De Rekere’? And, since the Dutch call their country 'De Lage Landen' (The Low Countries), shouldn’t we call Holland the ‘the Low Countries’?

Omitting the use of articles in Newspaper headlines for the purpose of saving space and focusing the attention on the actual news event is a common practice. This can sometimes create hilarious statements such as: ‘Eye Drops off Shelf’, ‘Dealers Will Hear Car Talk at Noon’, ‘Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim’.

There is also a current trend amongst marketers of high-tech gadgets to omit the article in front of their products’ name. ‘Kindle is now available in stores’. Is this an attempt at ‘personalizing’ their product? ‘Mom, I saw Kindle today’, a child would say, instead of ‘Mom, I saw Santa today’.

Emails and text messages are slowly leading the way to the elimination of 'the' and 'a' from the English language. Until they disappear completely, let’s enjoy them while we can and appreciate them, because there will come a day when a sentence like this will be the norm: ‘Man and woman were walking in Oxford Street. Woman saw dress that she liked in shop. She asked man if he could buy dress for her. He said: "Do you think shop will accept check? I don't have credit card."

I think that will be sign that I will want to stop the writing. But I will be a dead by then, thank the God. leave comment here