The first step in understanding how a/an or the are used before nouns, is to realise that the default is not to use them at all – just to use the noun alone.Just as the bare verb, known as the Simple Present, is the default form for verbs and needs no justification for its use, the bare noun – no preceding determiners – is the default form of nouns in English. It seems common sense that if a speaker uses a word, they should know why they do so, but many learners have been led to believe that a determiner is required before every noun and so put one in, more or less at random.
It’s very easy to express oneself at length without using any determiners before the nouns. For example:
“Jean lives in Paris which, as you know, is in France. He’s young and goes to university where he studies hard. He likes to enjoy himself too. He plays football, listens to music and reads science fiction among other hobbies. In spite of recent events, he’s not afraid of terrorist attacks. He goes out a lot to eat in restaurants, attend concerts and visit friends. He doesn’t often go to bed early.”
In traditional grammar books you will find long lists explaining various reasons for the “absence” of determiners in each case in the text above. Don’t clutter up your mind with them! It’s very difficult and rather ridiculous to justify a negative. If asked why you live where you do, is it normal to give reasons for not living in the myriad of places where you do not reside? If asked why you chose your profession do you usually explain why you are not an opera singer, a Jain monk, a deep-sea diver or any of the thousands of professions you have not adopted?
It’s much simpler to focus on the positive reasons for using the determiners a/an or the.
Why use a/an?
Because you want to refer to one of a number of people or things. Historically, the words a/an are related to the word one and are still close in meaning and are only used with which things which can be counted. For example, “In my fridge I have eggs, tomatoes, carrots, milk, cheese, water and a mango.” Eggs, tomatoes and carrots can be counted but I have more than one of each of these. Milk, cheese and water are not usually counted so a/an is not possible. (Sometimes they are considered countable. I have visited the cheese factories in the area where I live and seen the huge 40-kilo Comté cheeses but it would be impossible to put one of them in a kitchen fridge.) Mangos are large fruits so I only buy one at a time.
Why use the?
Because it’s clear which person or thing is referred to. The is a weak form of this/that/these/those. One of the ways of defining which person or thing we mean is by pointing to it. The other is by defining in words. This is easy to demonstrate in the classroom with near beginners. In a situation in which several identical markers (or Cuisenaire rods) are present in the room, the teacher tells a student to ask for a particular marker using their fingers to show which one: “Give me that marker.” Then the teacher tells the student to sit on their hands and ask for the marker again: “Give me the marker on the book”.
Bruce Ballard has written a very clear article on how he uses Cuisenaire rods with near beginner students to help them to choose the correct article in situations they can see and manipulate: Teaching “A” and “The” the Silent Way.
Using manipulatives can also be useful for higher level students to help them understand distinctions that are either not made in their native languages or made different ways. I found French students often had problems with things that are are not felt to be countable in English but are in French. This coupled with not realising that if the question “Which xxxx?” cannot be answered then the word is not defined and the definite article the cannot be used. Understanding and applying these two points led to the eradication of nearly all errors.
A classroom exercise for higher level students and teacher trainees
Draw on the board, or place a prepared version of, the following diagram:
Write near the top of the board the following example sentences:
I like Shakespeare.
I like whisky.
I like the whisky in this bar.
I like bananas.
There’s a banana on the table.
There’s an orange on the table.
There are oranges on the table.
I like the oranges on the table.
The orange on the table is sweet.
Get the students to discuss what the five pink boxes at the bottom indicate.
That is, from left to right:
ø + -s means no article before the noun; -s attached to the end of the noun.
a/an + -Ø means a or an before the noun; no -s attached to the end of the noun.
the + -s means the before the noun; -s attached to the end of the noun.
the + -Ø means the before the noun; no -s attached to the end of the noun.
Ø + -Ø means no article before the noun; no -s attached to the end of the noun.
One student at a time comes to the board, selects one of the example sentences and shows the path it takes to one of the pink boxes. They explain to the class their reasons for making each choice at each intermediate box The other students comment and rectify if necessary. The teacher only intervenes if the whole class is lost and clearly has no criteria for choosing.
At the end the board will look more or less like this:
Here’s an Interactive version of the diagram.
One of the things that will probably need to be worked on along the way is the distinction between Countable and Uncountable uses of nouns.
The teacher can make three columns on the board headed: Countable, Unccountable and Countable or Uncountable.
One student comes to the board and classifies the nouns suggested by the other students. Each decision has to be justified by giving an example of each noun used in context.
I sometimes did this slightly differently: I had an envelope containing nouns. The students had to take turns in drawing one out and deciding how it should be classified to complete the table on the board. At the end the table would look something like this:
For commercial reasons, at the end of the exercise I would give the students handouts but I doubt if they ever looked at them again.
I also provided on-line interactive exercises for revision and practice: Articles.