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Teaching Definite and Indefinite Articles

by Chris Gunn
If we do need an article, when should we use an indefinite article and when should
we use a definite article?

Rule 1: Indefinite articles are used for previously unknown nouns that are
being introduced into a dialogue or story and definite articles are used for
nouns that have already been introduced (or are already known or are
assumed to be known at the point of introduction to the conversation).

For example:

I saw a cat. The cat was sitting on a fence. The fence was painted brown. The cat
jumped off the fence when it saw a mouse. The mouse ran into a hole when it saw
the cat so the cat didn't catch the mouse.

In this example, the nouns cat, fence, and mouse take an indefinite article, but only
when they are introduced for the first time. fter they are introduced, we use the
definite article in e!ery instance. "his pattern, or rule, co!ers a lot of basic
instances of concrete nouns, especially in story tellin#. "his rule can extend o!er
lon# periods of time and interrupted dialo#ue so that I can ask you to buy a pen
and then se!eral hours later I can ask you if you bou#ht the pen.

$f course, this rule cannot be tau#ht at the sin#le sentence le!el since it re%uires a
sentence to introduce the noun and a sentence to talk about the noun that has
pre!iously been introduced.

$ne exercise that I find useful is to ha!e students fill in the articles for simple
stories where se!eral characters and ob&ects are introduced into the story in
succession. '!ery time a new character (kni#ht, cat, o#re, mouse) or a new ob&ect
(fence, brid#e, castle) is introduced into the story the indefinite article is used and
thereafter the definite article is used as per the basic rule. (*ee links abo!e ri#ht).

nother #ood exercise that emphasi+es this use of the basic rule is to ha!e a series
of flashcards with people or animals doin# somethin# and ask the students to
describe what they see:

I see a monkey. The monkey is playing the drums.
I see a cat. The cat is swimming.

"he pattern can be !aried to suit other lan#ua#e needs:

There is a cat. The cat is swimming.

*ome other possible ideas for usin# flashcards like these are:

(a) ,escribin# colours: I see a cat. The cat is black.
(b) ,escribin# clothes: There is a girl and a boy. The girl is wearing a dress and
the boy is wearing a shirt and jeans.
(c) ,escribin# actions: I see a knight. The knight is fighting an ogre.
(d) ,escribin# settin#s of a story: Once upon a time, there was a princess. The
princess lived in a castle.

If you ha!e to teach the use of articles, then this is the place to be#in. "his is the
basic rule for usin# articles. In fact, I often tell students that this is the only rule,
but there are many exceptions. "he problem is that there are so many exceptions
that you could spend an inordinate amount of time #oin# o!er these exceptions. In
the end, students would not be able to internali+e these rules anyways so what-s the
point (except perhaps to pro!ide a reference for writin#).
Another Basic ule egarding Definite Articles and !ni"ue #ouns$

ule %$ &hen a #oun is !ni"ue' !se a Definite Article

nother important rule is when somethin# is uni%ue
.
or, in other words, there is
only one of that ob&ect. In this case, the definite article is used. The sun, the
president, the ueen of !ngland, the capital city, and the moon are all examples.
"his is especially true for ob&ects that are well known by many or most people, but
it is true e!en when the hearer may not know the ob&ect:

:"ho's he/
0:#e's the president of $orea. %he's the &'O. #e's the mayor.

"his can be contrasted with:
: "ho's she?
0: %he's a member of parliament. %he's an accountant. #e's an alderman.

"his uni%ueness can come by association:

( car crashed into a tree. The driver was seriously injured.

$nce we established (introduced) the car, there could only be one dri!er so driver
was uni%ue at the time of introduction and we use the driver instead of a driver.
1e could ha!e rewritten this so that dri!er was not uni%ue (and the car was) when
it was introduced:

( driver was seriously injured when the car he was driving crashed.

dri!er can only be dri!in# one car at a time so car is uni%ue in this instance once
dri!er was introduced.

"his exception applies to superlati!es (which are usually uni%ue in occupyin# the
extreme postion or %uality): the best place, the worst thing, the fastest runner, the
tallest mountain, and the most interesting person I've ever met. "his can be
contrasted with comparati!es such as a better mouse trap where se!eral better
mouse traps are possible.

"his exception also applies to orderin# (ordinal numbers used as ad&ecti!es) where
it is presumed that the orderin# is uni%ue: the second time, the third e)ample, the
fourth person to call. In other words, once you place an order on ob&ects they hold
a uni%ue position in that order.

"his exception applies to named thin#s (which throu#h namin# become uni%ue):

The *ocky +ountains (a mountain ran#e)
The ,ew -ork Islanders (a sports team)
The (ma.on *iver (a ri!er in *outh merica)
The /acific Ocean (an ocean)
The %teelworkers 0nion (an or#ani+ation)
The 1reat /lains (a #eo#raphic locality)
The "ashington +onument (a statue)
The ,umber 'our 2us

2owe!er, this application is imperfect as some thin#s such as named lakes and
islands take no articles (0uttle 3ake, *kull Island) except in plural instances (the
Great 3akes, the Galapa#os islands).

"his exception applies to famous people who become uni%ue in their fame:

: I saw ,icole $idman yesterday.
0: ,icole $idman, the actor? ("here is only one famous 4icole 5idman)

"he links abo!e ri#ht co!er some of the applications of this exception.
!sing Articles with #ouns$
(enerally )peaking *ersus )peaking of eal or Actual Things.
"hy do we use an article with a noun sometimes and at other times leave the
article out?

ule +: &hen we are speaking of a noun in general we usuallyleave the article
out and' if it is countable' use the plural form.
,

*o for example, when we are talkin# about an actual cookie or cookies that really
exist or existed we use an article (definite or indefinite). In the followin#
examples, we are speakin# of specific6actual6real cookies.

I ate a cookie.
The cookie was delicious.
The cookies are on the table.
I made some cookies for you.

2owe!er, we can also make #eneral statements about cookies. nd when we do
speak in #eneral of cookies, we lea!e the articles out.

I like cookies.
&ookies contain a lot of sugar.
$ids shouldn't eat cookies every day.
I enjoy making cookies.
I never eat cookies at night.

It is possible to either use an article or lea!e it out, but the meanin# will be
different in each case:

I like cookies.
( #eneral statement concernin# cookies)
I like the cookies.
( statement about some specific cookies that I-!e actually tasted)

It should be noted that when we do speak in #eneral we commonly use the plural
form
..
of the noun if it is a countable noun (and &ust the noun if it is not
countable).

&ookies are bad for your health.
(Cookie is countable and therefore put into the plural)

/i..a is bad for your health.
(7i++a is uncountable and left as is)

"he links to ri#ht contain examples where students decide whether the statements
are #eneral statements or whether they are about actual ob&ects, but they are really
-best #uess- exercises since both statements I like cookies and I like the cookies are
#rammatically correct but are different in meanin# (one is specific and one is
#eneral).
dditional info:
1e use +ero article when we are talkin# about people or thin#s in #eneral.
-arrots are #ood for you.
carrots in general
The carrots in my #arden are almost ready to eat.
specific carrots
.nglish people drink a lot of tea.
!nglish people in general
The .nglish people in this hotel are !ery nice.
specific !nglish people