Advanced English Articles: 3 New Ways to Think about “A” and “The”

Advanced English Articles: 3 New Ways to Think about "A" and "The"

Today, you have a choice:

  1. Do you want a quick overview of how to use articles (a, an, the) in English? Click here.
  2. Do you want some new and unusual ways of thinking about articles in English? Read on!

A couple of new ways of thinking about “a” and “the”

Back in 2017, I wrote this book:

Cover: 102 Little Drawings That Will Help You Remember English Rules FOREVER (Probably)
(Get your copy here.)

And here’s my favourite image from this book:

Two stick figures talking to each other. In the first panel, the speaking says "the cat." Above their heads, there is a thought bubble connected to both people with a picture of a cat. In the second panel, the speaker is saying "a cat." There is the same thought bubble, but it is only connect to the speaker. The listener has a question mark above her head.

One of the reasons I like this image so much is that it shows you how language works in one simple picture.

Remember, language isn’t a “thing.”

It’s not a machine that has moving parts and all you need to do is get the right parts together and then the machine works:

Archaic machine with black smoke coming out the bakc and a tattered flag on top with a bird perched on it
Not language

It’s much more complex and interesting than that.

Language is all about relationships — the relationship between you and the person you’re talking to.

In fact, research shows that we actually create a simulation of the other person’s brain in our own brain before we decide what to say.

Two stick figures, one with a thought bubble. In the thought bubble, there is the second stick figure with a thought bubble containing a cat.

So, this means that we decide what we say — what language we use — based on what we think our listener knows.

Got it?

And nothing demonstrates this more clearly than whether we use “a” or “the” (for singular nouns).

A lot of English coursebooks and teachers might tell you that we use “a” to introduce something and then use “the” every time afterwards.

And this is generally true.

However, when you’re in the middle of a conversation, are you constantly going back to the beginning of the conversation to check whether you’ve introduced the topic already?

No. We’re not consciously checking back on what we said earlier in the conversation, but we’re building a mental picture of what the other person knows and doesn’t know … and referring to that.

All we’re doing is looking at that simulation we have — what we think the other person knows.

Two stick figures, one with a thought bubble. In the thought bubble, there is the second stick figure with a thought bubble containing a cat and the word "cat" with a question mark.

Here’s another way of looking at it.

Let’s say you’ve gone out and bought a new pet … a sparkling new giraffe.

You’re obviously very excited about this, so you give your friend Barry a call and tell him the good news.

Now, Barry doesn’t know about the giraffe, so you need to throw him a line — you need to transfer your image and knowledge of the giraffe to Barry.

So you throw him the giraffe line:

A stick figure throwing a line labelled "a" to another person. At the end of the line, there is a picture of a giraffe.

Throwing the line — while it’s still in mid-air — represents our use of “a.”

From now on, there’s a line connecting you together. The giraffe line. And it can’t be broken.

And this line represents our use of “the.”

A stick figure connected to another person by a line labelled "the." At the end of the line, there is a picture of a giraffe.

It’s like a bridge, or a USB cable, connecting your brain to Barry’s.

Alternatives to “the”

OK.

So that’s the basic principle behind “a” and “the.”

But there are some situations where we use “the” in other ways.

For example, if we have another word that already makes our noun specific — another word that works in the same way as “the,” then we don’t use “the.”

That’s why we don’t say, “Barry? He’s my the best friend.” Instead, we just say, “Barry? He’s my best friend.”

Why?

Well — we already have something that makes Barry specific (and I’m not talking about his fish-shaped hairstyle). It’s the word “my.”

In short, if you have a possessive pronoun (“my,” “your,” “her,” etc.) or “‘s” for possession, then you don’t need to use “the.”

So you would say, “Johnson is Mark’s boss,” not “Johnson is the Mark’s boss.”

And for the same reason, we also don’t need “the” if we use “this” or “that.”

A lot of languages don’t have “the,” but most of them have “this” and “that.”

So, that’s why when someone asks me the difficult question, “What does ‘the’ mean?” I find it helps to say, “It’s kind of like ‘this’ or ‘that.’”

Then they understand.

So you’d say, “This giraffe party is getting a little crazy,” and not “This the giraffe party is getting a little crazy.”

Other ways of marking “a”

OK. This is when things get a little weird and fun.

We can also use “this” instead of “a.”

But be careful — when we do this, we’re sending out a special signal.

We’re basically saying something like, “This thing is a little hard to describe, but it’s kind of like …” or maybe “This thing was rather surprising!”

Examples?

Yeah — good idea.

“We were just walking in the forest when we came across this massive, beautiful waterfall!” (surprise!)

“After the lesson, he came up to me and gave me this sort of brown and gold metal box thing. I still haven’t been able to open it.” (hard to describe)

A hand holding the Lament Configuration, an ornate brown and gold puzzle box
lament configuration 2 by Andrew Iverson | CC BY 2.0

We can also replace “a” with “some.”

We’ve actually looked at this before (twice, I think): here and here.

But let’s look at it again — because it’s such a cool feature of English.

Basically, when you use the formula “some + singular noun,” you send a special signal.

This signal says, “I don’t really care, or it’s not very important.”

So, if you say, “When I last saw Anna, she was going to a party,” there’s nothing particularly interesting happening. You’re just stating a fact: You saw Anna. She was going to a party. OK. Great.

But if you say, “When I last saw Anna, she was going to some party,” there’s an extra layer of meaning around it. It’s like you’re saying, “I don’t know (or maybe don’t even care) about the party — whose it is. Where it is. I don’t care. Just leave me alone to eat this carrot cake.”

You can also use “some + singular noun” if you want to add a layer of mystery.

So if you say, “The magic dog took the children to some far and distant land,” you’re saying, “Even I don’t really know much about this place, and this is my story that I made up … it’s mysterious!”

Fun, right?

All countable nouns have a “tab”

Let’s look at a perfectly normal noun, like “armadillo”:

Sketch of an armadillo. The word 'armadillo' is written on green paper.

Now, with “armadillo” and all other countable nouns, we don’t just use the noun by itself.

So it would be weird to say, “Armadillo is awesome,” or “My best friend has armadillo. It’s very friendly,” or “Look at armadillo next to the tree! It’s drinking green tea!”

All of these examples of “armadillo” need what I like to call a “tab.”

What’s a tab?

Look at the pictures below — the tab is the blue bit of paper.

It could be the plural tab:

Sketch of an armadillo. The word 'armadillo' is written on green paper on the left. A hyphen and the letter S are written on blue paper on the right.
e.g. “Armadillos are awesome.”

It could be the “a” tab:
Sketch of an armadillo. The word 'an' is written on blue paper on the left. The word 'armadillo' is written on green paper on the right.
e.g. “My best friend has an armadillo.”

Or it could be the “the” tab:
Sketch of an armadillo. The word 'the' is written on blue paper on the left. The word 'armadillo' is written on green paper on the right.
e.g. “Look at the armadillo next to the tree! It’s drinking green tea!”

If you remove a tab from any countable noun, you’re making it uncountable.

Which brings us to …

Making countable nouns uncountable

So, if you have a countable noun without “tabs” (“a,” “the” or plural), it is no longer a countable noun. It has a full identity change. It transitions into an uncountable noun.

When we do this, it’s usually to do one of two things:

  1. We want to make the noun abstract — we want to talk about the concept of the noun rather than the reality of it.
  2. We want to transform a thing into uncountable matter — usually by taking pieces out of it.

Let’s look at these one by one:

Making a noun abstract

If my uncle Jerry gets arrested, sentenced and put in jail for five years, how would I talk about him?

Would I say that he’s in the prison or in a prison or in prison?

Or, if my second cousin Darleen hadn’t had an education at all, then would I say that she never went to the school or to a school or to school?

Or, if my neighbour Emil got in a fight and ended up getting surgery, would I say that he’s recovering in the hospital or in a hospital or in hospital?

Well, the question here is this: What’s more important? The status of Jerry, Darleen and Emil, or the specific buildings they’re in (or were never in, in the case of Darleen)?

The status is more important, right?

If Jerry’s in prison, what’s important is that he’s not going to be around to sing loudly at Christmas this year. Not that the walls he’s looking at happen to be light green and that the dining hall is on the third floor.

If Darleen’s never been to school, what’s important is that she might have difficulty reading, not that she doesn’t know where the gym showers are.

If Emil … well, you get the idea.

We’re talking about being in these places (in prison, in school, in hospital, at university and so on) as abstract states … not places.

If we want to talk about them as places, then it’s back to using the tabs (“a,” “the,” plural, “this,” “that,” etc.) and making them countable:

“There’s a really ugly hospital opposite my house. I hate it.”

“Once you pass the big prison, turn right.”

“He’s donating money to this village so they can build a school.”

This is also why we don’t usually say “a home” or “the home” — just “home.”

Because “home” is more of a concept than a place:

“Can you drive him home now?”

“There’s no place like home.”

An armadillo vs (some) armadillo

Let’s say there was a terrible explosion by the river where your favourite armadillo lives.

I’m so terribly sorry to tell you that … alas … the armadillo was caught up in the explosion and was … there’s no easy way to tell you this … he was blown up into hundreds of small pieces … which went everywhere.

So you decide to go down to the river to clean up the horrible mess.

And you spend hours. There’s armadillo in the trees; there’s armadillo on the rocks; there’s armadillo spread all over the grass.

And by the end of the day, you’re finding armadillo in your hair and on your clothes.

See what happened there (I mean linguistically … ignore the tragedy)?

When something is broken down into pieces, or into matter, it loses its tabs (“a,” “the” or plural). It becomes uncountable.

Perhaps I should’ve gone with a cleaner and less traumatising example?

Well, better late than never:

“Would you like some banana? I don’t want to eat a whole one.”

“You’ve got cake in your beard.”

Why do we use “the” with places in town?

Why do we say “a concert” but “the cinema”?

And why do we say “a shop” but “the shopping mall”?

Well, there’s actually a pretty interesting explanation for this.

Wherever you’re reading this from, I’m willing to bet as much as $4.50 … no, make it $5 … that your experience of your local cinema is pretty much the same as mine.

You go to the desk, get tickets for the film, maybe get those 3D glasses, spend half your mortgage on some popcorn and go into a dark room full of other people and watch a very loud film.

The same with shopping malls.

Shopping malls are not real places.

You go to a shopping mall in Jakarta, Kampala or Oslo … they’re all going to be more or less the same thing.

Sure, one shopping mall might have this brand and the other might have that one. But look: they’re all selling overpriced socks, so no real difference.

And it’s the same with the baker’s, the opera, the ballet, the gym and so on.

These are universal experiences. They’re not particularly unique.

If you’re telling a friend about going to the shopping mall, you’re talking about the experience.

And, because you’re using “the,” you’re also starting off with the connection:

A stick figure connected to another person by a line labelled "the." At the end of the line, there is a picture of a giraffe.

You’re saying, “You know what a shopping mall is like. I know what a shopping mall is like.”

It’s nice — it means that you’re establishing a connection with your audience straight away. You’re acknowledging a shared experience.

If you want to introduce a specific mall, then you use “a.”

“There’s a really cool shopping mall around there — it kind of looks like a ’70s sci-fi film.”

People standing along three levesl of curved balconies at Kanyon shopping centre in Istanbul
Real place not in the ’70s

Cafés, restaurants and concerts, however, are more unique. They’re kind of different from each other. So we don’t default to “the.”

“I went to an awesome concert on Saturday.”

Using “the” to introduce a topic for dramatic effect

I left the best for last.

Sometimes we can use “the” to introduce a topic for dramatic effect.

If you read a lot in English (You should), then you might have already seen this.

So, usually we need to use “a” to introduce a topic, right?

We need to throw the topic line:

A stick figure throwing a line labelled "a" to another person. At the end of the line, there is a picture of a giraffe.

But, if you suddenly throw in a “the” for something that’s appearing for the first time, it sends out a very strong signal.

It’s saying, “This thing is really important. It’s going to be a major part of the next part of the story. Maybe it even changed my life.”

You’re telling your audience that this is something to look out for.

It’s particularly useful if you want people to start paying attention.

Examples?

You bet:

“After one more hour of walking, we turned a corner. That’s when we saw the bear.”

“He wouldn’t say a word for ages. After giving him some water and letting him calm down a bit, he told us about the attack.”

See what’s happening here?

The bear and the attack are both such important elements of the story that it feels like they were always there.

And you achieve that feeling by going straight for “the.”

“A bear” sounds too insignificant.

“An attack” doesn’t feel like it’s very important.

These things get an immediate upgrade by using “the.”


OK, that’s it for today.

But don’t think of this blog post as a grammar lesson …

These are not fixed rules that you have to learn but rather something for you to ponder. Hopefully, it will give you a better feel for how (and why) we use articles in English.

So take a minute to think about everything you’ve read …

… and get on with your day.

Enjoy it!

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9 thoughts on “Advanced English Articles: 3 New Ways to Think about “A” and “The”

  1. Thanks a lot! This approach to the use of articles looks interesting and has – if you come to think of it – a certain explanotory potential.

  2. I love your newsletter! I am American & live in Colorado. I am always amazed at the information you provide. Most things I never learned in school. Just astounding!

  3. Gabriel, hi! That’s the best article about articles and definitely the funniest one:)) I enjoy your explanation every time I read it. At first it seems to me, oh, I don’t have time now, I’ll read it later. But as soon as I start, I can’t stop!:) Sometimes I laugh to tears and time flies by like one minute. It is very informative. It is easy to imagine and it stays in my mind for a long time. Thank you so much! Please don’t stop and keep making us happy 😉

  4. You just hit the spot. I was always asking myself why there is no article in collocations like in jail, in hospital, etc till today. No more doubts. Thanks 🙂

  5. Hello. Thank you for the great episode. I always have fun reading your blogs that are full of wit. I have always doubted about articles with abstract nouns. How do I think about it? From Japan.

    1. Hi Yuji,

      Thanks for the feedback and glad you found the article useful.

      When you say “articles with abstract nouns,” are you referring to things like “madness” and “the madness” or “knowledge” and “the knowledge”?

      In these cases we basically follow the “cat rule,” but with one exception – no “a” because abstract nouns are uncountable.

      So if the other person knows which madness or which knowledge you’re referring to, then use “the.” If not, then use nothing.

      This is a generalisation of course and there are always exceptions, so remember to treat it as more of a guide than a rule.

      Hope that helps!

      🙂

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