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Revising for grammar: Articles ("the" and "a")

Part 1 in an ongoing Grammar Camp series about revising for grammar
Published June 23, 2020 by Julia Lane

An important part of writing a good paper is actually its revision process. During the revision stage, proofreading for grammatical errors such as article uses, the tone of the paper, correct use of vocabulary, and so forth, can help enhance the content of your paper and enrich the reading experience of your audience. Although you may be writing for an audience that is well versed in your topic, chances are that they too may struggle to understand your take on the topic if your paper has many grammatical inconsistencies (even if the inconsistencies are minor in and of themselves). A tense difference, an article difference, an adjective vs. a verb difference can significantly change the meaning of your sentences.

In part 1 of this "revising for grammar" series, we will focus on the difference between the articles “The” and “A(n)”.

The vs. A(n)

The two most common articles that are mistakenly used or even interchanged (the and a), are significantly different in their meanings. Both articles are used to refer to nouns, and you decide which one to use based on how the noun is being described in your sentence.

The

“The” refers to a specific noun, and is often used in conjunction with an adjective before the noun or a description after the noun:

Ex. “The black dog” or “The man with the orange t-shirt”.

Here, the main nouns -- dog and man -- have descriptions of them either before or after they appear.

As a general rule, you do not need “the” as an article before a noun that has its own name or specific meaning, for example: names of people, places, abstract concepts, companies, or commercial objects.

Ex. The Facebook is an online social media platform.

Ex. The love is a beautiful feeling.

Ex. The Kleenex is a brand of tissue.

Ex. The Stanley Park is a great place for picnics.

Here, all the nouns have their own proper names and can be referred to directly by these names. Their names already refer to the specific noun.

However, there is a catch! In certain cases, the names of certain objects and/or abstract concepts may need an article if what is being talked about is not the name of the object or concept, but the object or concept type.

Ex. The love a mother has for her child is unexplainable.

Ex. The Dyson hand dryers work more effectively than the older ones in the bathroom.

Here, “love” and “Dyson hand dryers” are an abstract concept and a commercial object, respectively. However, as they are being used in these sentences, they are not a reference unto themselves: we are not talking about all forms of love, but a very specific type of love (mother and child), and we are not talking about Dyson hand dryers, but referring to the specific type of hand dryer that is better (Dyson vs. others). In this case, the real noun is a particular type of our given noun and therefore needs “the” before it.

A/An

“A” carries two significations: it can be a numerical representation of singularity, or signify something generally. The most common way “a” is used is to signify that a noun is singular.

Ex.I want a partner who is funny and nice.

Ex. I need to get a new pair of jeans.

Ex. Hey, do you want to go on a bike ride?

In all three examples, the article “a” tells us that our noun can only be one. Someone wants one partner, one pair of pants, and wants to go on one bike ride.

The other way “a” is applied, especially in academic writing, is to signify the generality of a noun: the noun is one of many and not specific at all. The reason for using a generic article in such instances is to let the reader know that we are not making sweeping assertions, but are offering an overall view of a topic.

Ex. Shakespeare was an intelligent playwright.

Ex. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for a person’s fight or flight response.

In both of these examples, the nouns are referring to their general class, in which any number of people or things can fall under. “An intelligent playwright” is a personal noun not limited to Shakespeare alone; anyone could be described with this noun under the right circumstances. The message in this sentence is also not that Shakespeare is the best or only intelligent playwright, but one of possibly many intelligent playwrights. Similarly, “a person’s fight or flight response” can be any person’s response.

Which article do I use?

An easy way to catch article errors during the revision process is to read your paper out loud. Often, when we read papers silently, our minds skip through the articles and focus on the content or descriptive words. When we read papers aloud, however, we are forced to say the articles in the sentences to hear the coherency; this is where odd sounding articles can become apparent. If we would not say a sentence the way it is written, it is probably has some error(s). Once you hear a possible error, the next step is to circle the article in your paper and then circle the noun you think it is supposed to support. Next, you need to figure out whether your noun: 

  • is followed or preceded by a description,
  • whether it has a name of its own,
  • whether it is a signifying a type of a noun,
  • whether it is a specific or general noun.

As you filter through the grammatical rules of articles, you will be become surer of the type of article you need.

This is a tried and tested method, and it is one that almost all Writing and Learning Peers use ourselves and with students in consultations. Often, if students read their paper aloud to a Writing and Learning Peer, they will notice and correct an article error before the Peer can even point it out. This speaks to our tendency as students to focus on the content of our papers, leaving important, meaning shifting, grammatical components as our last priority.

There is certainly nothing wrong with focusing on your grammar as a final step in your revision work, and often multiple assignment demands during midterm season force students to overlook little details. However, the grammatical structure of a paper is as important: it facilitates the reader’s engagement with your paper by showing the reader points you wish to stress vs. generalize.

Now that you have a method for tackling articles in your writing, I urge you to take even 15 minutes at the end of your paper writing process to read your paper aloud. It’s worth your time and can make a difference to your grade!

- Deeya B. 

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