an article on articles

February 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

I’ve recently had two enquiries from people wanting to help colleagues who, though able to do most of the things they need to do for work, had problems with their English. In both cases, the example given was that they made errors in the use of the and a (i.e., in linguistic jargon, the article system). One of them suggested that what the colleague needed was a course in Basic English Grammar. That seems like a reasonable suggestion, doesn’t it? A and the are about the most basic words you can think of. However, next time you’re speaking with highly capable speakers of English as an additional language, note whether they always get this right (if on the other hand that description fits you, I think you’ll know what I’m getting at). Most of these people have no doubt at some stage studied basic English grammar courses, so why haven’t they sorted it?

A good place to start looking for the answer would be a grammar book written for learners of English (very different from one written for native speakers). See how thick the section on articles is. Flick through it and find out how complicated the system is. For example, let’s start with geographical features. Why is it that rivers are the Waikato and the Clutha, but lakes are Taupo and Wanaka. What about islands? They don’t take the, do they? Stewart Island, Rangitoto. Yeah, right! Why would that rule be challenging for someone learning their English in New Zealand? And think about how much information the or its absence gives you about the person referred to and their intent in the following examples:

He went to school today.
He went to the school today
.

Can you think of any other destinations that make that kind of distinction between people going for the normal, regular purpose and people going for some other reason? One of them might have been prison. What would you say for the convicted criminal? And for his father when he visits him? So while we’re thinking of the justice system I’ll just finish with one more idiomatic example. How does a change things in these two examples:

About time he got a life, don’t you think?
He got life. About time, too!

There are, of course, ways that we can support people who need help with improving their English, and I’m certainly happy to provide suggestions, but in terms of this particular difficulty, do cut learners a bit of slack, recognising how difficult it is to get it right, and reminding others around you that it is generally perfectly possible to transact business, have a conversation and engage in intellectually probing interaction with non-native speakers even if they haven’t yet mastered the article system.

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