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Indefinite Articles:


a, an

Plural (technically not an article)


Definite Articles:






Definite and indefinite articles are part of a complicated system of determiners:


Ducks are birds.  

A few ducks live here.

Few ducks live here.

The few ducks that live here in winter are mallards.

The ducks were brown.

Three ducks were sick.

A duck was swimming in the pond.

That duck is quacking.

Those ducks are migrating.

Both ducks eat fish.

Some ducks eat worms.

Two ducks came towards us.

The two ducks were flapping as they came.

My ducks escaped.

Another duck flew past.

The other duck was injured.


If you do not think this is complicated, try to answer why 'few ducks', 'a few ducks' and 'the few ducks' are permissible expressions, but only 'both ducks' is permissible while 'a both ducks' and 'the both ducks' are not permissible.


Or how about these three generalizations?:


A camel can survive extreme cold as well as extreme hot weather.


Camels can survive extreme cold as well as extreme hot weather.


The camel can survive extreme cold  as well as extreme hot weather.



Teaching Definite and Indefinite Articles

by Chris Gunn


Introduction | Basic Rule One  | Basic Rule Two | Basic Rule Three

A common question from students and teachers of English as a second language is When do I use the indefinite articles 'a,' 'an,'  and 'some'*  (which acts like an indefinite plural article), and when do I use the definite article 'the'?


The truth is that the answer is extremely complex--too complex in fact; it constantly gives me a headache. You could set out to list examples of usage as in Swan's Practical English Usage or Fowler's Modern English Usage, but I have a feeling that your students will quickly get lost.


Instead, I would like to propose a few basic rules that your students could get a lot of mileage out of. I would also like to phrase these rules in a non-standard way to make them more accessible for the ESL/EFL audience. Finally, I would also like to provide a few worksheets so that students can get a feel for these rules in use. So keep in mind that the purpose of this article is to simplify an extremely complex system so that it is understood on a basic level by ESL/EFL students and not to account for every usage of articles with nouns in the English language.


The first rule explains when we use 'the' and when we use 'a', 'an', or 'some'. The second rule deals with unique nouns, which usually require a definite article. The third rule explains why we sometimes leave articles out. As I stated above, these three rules represent an over simplification of a complex system, but they are easy to understand (and teach) and ESL/EFL students should be able to grasp them.


Why is it so difficult? I suspect there are several influencing factors. First of all, articles belong to a system of determiners.  And the decision to use an article or not depends on what other determiners you are using along with the noun. And it depends on the context in which you are using the noun. If you look at the list of statements about ducks to the right, it is clear that context and co-occurring determiners are a factor in using (or not) an article. In general, articles should probably not be taught in isolation, but should be included in the wider scope of the system of determiners and that will be the focus of part II on this discussion on articles.


I also suspect adults have a difficult time with articles because the nature of input that they receive is more complicated and rule-breaking compared to the input that children receive. Children deal in concrete nouns and the basic rules usually apply making it easier for children to internalize the rules. Adults on the other hand deal with abstract nouns for which the rules are less clear and sometimes contradictory. And so, children get a foundation from which they learn exceptions and adults see only an apparent random assignment of articles to nouns. But that's just my personal speculation.


Continue. . .


Introduction | Basic Rule One  | Basic Rule Two | Basic Rule Three


*Some is not technically classified as an indefinite article but it acts as an indefinite plural article.





  All materials (c) 2007 Lanternfish ESL