English articles

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The articles in English are the definite article the and the indefinite articles a and an (and sometimes some). Use of the definite article implies that the speaker assumes the listener knows the identity of the noun's referent (because it is obvious, because it is common knowledge, or because it was mentioned in the same sentence or an earlier sentence). Use of an indefinite article implies that the speaker assumes the listener does not have to know the identity of the referent. In some noun phrases no article is used.

Articles are a special case of determiners in English; for information about this class as a whole, see English determiners.


Definite article[edit]

The only definite article in English is the word the, denoting person(s) or thing(s) already mentioned, under discussion, implied, or otherwise presumed familiar to the listener or reader. The is the most commonly used word in the English language.

"The" can be used with both singular and plural nouns, with nouns of any gender, and with nouns that start with any letter. This is different from many other languages which have different articles for different genders and/or numbers.

Pronunciation[edit]

In most dialects "the" is pronounced as /ðə/ (with the voiced dental fricative /ð/ followed by schwa) when followed by a consonant sound. In many dialects, including Received Pronunciation (standard educated speech of England), the pronunciation [ði] is used before words beginning with vowel sounds.[1] The emphatic form of the word is /ðiː/ (like thee) – see Weak and strong forms in English.

In some Northern England dialects of English, the is pronounced [t̪ə] (with a dental t) or as a glottal stop, usually written in eye dialect as ⟨t⟩; in some dialects it reduces to nothing. This is known as definite article reduction. In dialects that do not have the voiced dental fricative /ð/, the is pronounced with the voiced dental plosive, as in /d̪ə/ or /d̪iː/).

Etymology[edit]

The and that are common developments from the same Old English system. Old English had a definite article se, in the masculine gender, seo (feminine), and þæt (neuter). In Middle English these had all merged into þe, the ancestor of the Modern English word the.

Usage[edit]

The principles of the use of the definite article in English are described above under Use of articles. (The word the is also used with comparatives, in phrases like, the sooner the better, and, we were all the happier for it; this form of the definite article has a somewhat different etymology from other uses of the definite article. (See the Wiktionary entry the.)

An area in which the use or non-use of the is sometimes problematic is with geographic names. Names of rivers, seas, mountain ranges, deserts, island groups and the like are generally used with the definite article (the Rhine, the North Sea, the Alps, the Sahara, the Hebrides). Names of continents, islands, countries, regions, administrative units, cities and towns mostly do not take the article (Europe, Skye, Germany, Scandinavia, Yorkshire, Madrid). However, there are certain exceptions:

  • Countries and regions whose names are modified common nouns, or are derived from island groups, take the article: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic, the Middle East, the Philippines, the Seychelles. Note also the Netherlands.
  • Certain countries whose names derive from mountain ranges, rivers, deserts, etc. are sometimes used with an article (the Lebanon, the Sudan),[2] but this usage is declining, although the Gambia is the recommended name of that country. Since the independence of Ukraine (formerly sometimes called the Ukraine), most style guides have advised dropping the article[3] (in some other languages there is a similar issue involving prepositions). Use of the Argentine for Argentina is now old-fashioned.
  • Some names include an article for historical reasons, such as The Bronx, or to reproduce the native name (The Hague).
  • Names beginning with a common noun followed by of take the article, as in the Isle of Wight (compare Christmas Island). The same applies to names of institutions: Cambridge University, but the University of Cambridge.

Abbreviations for "the" and "that"[edit]

Barred thorn (after Ælfric)

Since "the" is one of the most frequently used words in English, at various times short abbreviations for it have been found:

  • Barred thorn:  the earliest abbreviation, it is used in manuscripts in the Old English language. It is the letter þ with a bold horizontal stroke through the ascender, and it represents the word þæt, meaning "the" or "that" (neuter nom. / acc.)
  • þͤ and þͭ  (þ with a superscript e or t) appear in Middle English manuscripts for "þe" and "þat" respectively.
  • and   are developed from þͤ and þͭ and appear in Early Modern manuscripts and in print (see Ye form below).

Occasional proposals have been made by individuals for an abbreviation. In 1916, Legros & Grant included in their classic printers' handbook Typographical Printing-Surfaces, a proposal for a letter similar to Ħ to represent "Th", thus abbreviating "the" to ħe.[4] Why they did not propose reintroducing to the English language "þ", for which blocks were already available for use in Icelandic texts, or the form is unknown.

In 2013 an Australian restaurateur named Paul Mathis proposed Ћ, which he nicknamed "The Tap",[5][6] as a symbol for "the." This symbol is the same as the Serbian Cyrillic letter Ћ (Tshe).

Ye form[edit]

In Middle English, the (þe) was frequently abbreviated as a þ with a small e above it, similar to the abbreviation for that, which was a þ with a small t above it. During the latter Middle English and Early Modern English periods, the letter thorn (þ) in its common script, or cursive, form came to resemble a y shape. As such the use of a y with an e above it (EME ye.svg) as an abbreviation became common. This can still be seen in reprints of the 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible in places such as Romans 15:29, or in the Mayflower Compact. Historically the article was never pronounced with a y sound, even when so written.

Indefinite article[edit]

The indefinite article of English takes the two forms a and an. Semantically they can be regarded as meaning "one", usually without emphasis. They can be used only with singular countable nouns; for the possible use of some (or any) as an equivalent with plural and uncountable nouns, see Use of some below.

Distinction between a and an[edit]

The form an is used before words starting with a vowel sound, regardless of whether the word begins with a vowel letter.[7] This avoids the glottal stop (momentary silent pause) that would otherwise be required between a and a following vowel sound. Where the next word begins with a consonant sound, a is used. Examples: a box; an apple; an SSO (pronounced "es-es-oh"); a HEPA filter (HEPA is pronounced as a word rather than as letters); an hour (the h is silent); a one-armed bandit (pronounced "won..."); an heir (pronounced "air"); a unicorn (pronounced "yoo-"); an herb in American English (where the h is silent), but a herb in British English.

Some speakers and writers use an before a word beginning with the sound /h/ in an unstressed syllable: an historical novel, an hotel.[8] However, where the "h" is clearly pronounced, this usage is now less common, and "a" is preferred.[7]

Some dialects, particularly in England (such as Cockney), silence many or all initial h sounds (h-dropping), and so employ an in situations where it would not be used in the standard language, like an 'elmet (standard English: a helmet).

There used to be a distinction analogous to that between a and an for the possessive determiners my and thy, which became mine and thine before a vowel, as in mine eyes.[9] Other more or less analogous cases in different languages include the Yiddish articles "a" (אַ) and "an" (אַן) (used in essentially the same manner as the English ones), the Hungarian articles a and az (used the same way, except that they are definite articles; juncture loss, as described below, has occurred in that language too), and the privative a- and an- prefixes, meaning "not" or "without", in Greek and Sanskrit.

Pronunciation[edit]

Both a and an are usually pronounced with a schwa: /ə/, /ən/. However, when stressed (which is rare in ordinary speech), they are normally pronounced respectively as /eɪ/ (to rhyme with day) and /æn/ (to rhyme with pan). See Weak and strong forms in English.

Etymology[edit]

An is the older form (related to one, cognate to German ein; etc.). An was originally an unstressed form of the number ān 'one'.

Usage[edit]

The principles for use of the indefinite article are given above under Use of articles.

In addition to serving as an article, a and an are also used to express a proportional relationship, such as "a dollar a day" or "$150 an ounce" or "A sweet a day helps you work, rest and play", although historically this use of "a" and "an" does not come from the same word as the articles.[10]

Juncture loss[edit]

In a process called juncture loss, the n has wandered back and forth between the indefinite article and words beginning with vowels over the history of the language, where for example what was once a nuncle is now an uncle. The Oxford English Dictionary gives such examples as smot hym on the hede with a nege tool from 1448 for smote him on the head with an edge tool, as well as a nox for an ox and a napple for an apple. Sometimes the change has been permanent. For example, a newt was once an ewt (earlier euft and eft), a nickname was once an eke-name, where eke means "extra" (as in eke out meaning "add to"), and in the other direction, a napron (meaning a little tablecloth, related to the word napkin) became an apron, and a naddre became an adder. The initial n in orange was also dropped through juncture loss, but this happened before the word was borrowed into English.

Use of some[edit]

The word some is sometimes used as a functional equivalent of a(n) with plural and uncountable nouns (also called a partitive). For example, Give me some apples, Give me some water (equivalent to the singular countable forms an apple and a glass of water). Grammatically this some is not required; it is also possible to use zero article: Give me apples, Give me water. The use of some in such cases implies a more limited quantity. (Compare the forms unos/unas in Spanish, which are the plural of the indefinite article un/una.)

In most negative clauses, and often in questions, the word any is used instead of some: Don't give me any apples; Is there any water?

The determiner some can also have a more emphatic meaning: "some but not others" or "some but not many". For example, some people like football, while others prefer rugby, or I've got some money, but not enough to lend you any. It can also be used as an indefinite pronoun, not qualifying a noun at all (Give me some!) or followed by a prepositional phrase (I want some of your vodka); the same applies to any.

Some can also be used with singular countable nouns, as in There is some person on the porch, which implies that the identity of the person is unknown to the speaker (which is not necessarily the case when a(n) is used). This usage is fairly informal, although singular countable some can also be found in formal contexts: We seek some value of x such that...

When some is used with merely the function of an indefinite article, it is normally pronounced weakly, as [s(ə)m]. In other meanings it is pronounced [sʌm]. See Weak and strong forms in English.

Effect on alphabetical order[edit]

In sorting titles and phrases alphabetically, articles are usually excluded from consideration, since being so common makes them more of a hindrance than a help in finding a desired item. For example, The Comedy of Errors is alphabetized before A Midsummer Night's Dream, because the and a are ignored and comedy alphabetizes before midsummer. In an index, the former work might be written "Comedy of Errors, The", with the article moved to the end.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "the – definition". Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. 
  2. ^ Swan, Michael How English Works, p. 25
  3. ^ Ukraine or "the Ukraine"? by Andrew Gregorovich, infoukes.com
  4. ^ Missed Opportunity for Ligatures
  5. ^ "Ћ letter changing how we type". BBC News. 11 July 2013. Retrieved 11 July 2013. 
  6. ^ Kennedy, John (11 July 2013). "One man’s crusade to create a symbol for ‘The’". Silicon Republic. Retrieved 11 July 2013. 
  7. ^ a b How to Use Articles (a/an/the) – The OWL at Purdue
  8. ^ Peters, Pam (2004). "a or an". The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 1. ISBN 0-521-62181-X. 
  9. ^ "mine, adj. and pron.". Oxford English Dictionary (3 ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 2002. "Now only before a vowel or h, and arch[aic] or poet[ical]" 
  10. ^ "a, adj; a prep 1". Oxford English Dictionary. "Originally a variant of one adj...Variant of on prep" 

External links[edit]