Various scholars have analysed the article system used in the English language for decades. Articles are very important parts of the English language, as they cut across both the linguistic and non-linguistic fields. There are three common English articles. These are ‘the’, ‘a’, and ‘an’. Article ‘the’ has been proven to be one of the most used words in both written and spoken English (Master, Teaching the English 464). Statistically, ‘the’ is used 25.1%, while ‘a’ and ‘an’ are used a cumulative 8.5% in any conversation (Berry 14).
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Despite the natural way and the ease of use of articles, many English learners find it difficult to fully master when to apply an article. In turn, the learners find it difficult to communicate the simplest of instructions. Berry clarifies and observes that this is a major problem among people whose first language does not have articles (17). For instance, it is common to find people whose first language is Arabic having a hard time making the use of English articles because Arabic contains one article only.
This essay gives a detailed analysis of the English articles. The first analysis will focus on the different factors that are involved when applying articles in the English language. In the same vein, an analysis of the uses of articles will be presented. Similarly, a detailed examination of the difficulties that Arabic speakers undergo when learning articles in the English language will be given.
Semantic features of articles in English
As mentioned, understanding the use of articles in the English language has proven a difficult task for many students learning English as a second language. The main reason why this task is difficult for L2 learners is that many of the other languages do not have articles. Secondly, the rules that are used in the application of articles are very different and can even defer from the rules the learners have instilled about other parts of speech. One must also understand the theories that are associated with the application of articles to understand the semantic features of articles.
Maratosos argues that articles have no meanings, yet they are significant in giving meaning (78). For example, words that have meaning include chair, man, child, want, desire, and eat, among other words. Looking at these examples, it is clear that words that have meaning fall in the various categories of parts of speech. However, the article ‘the’ does not have such a distinct meaning. Therefore, when a speaker says ‘the’ or ‘a’, the listener will not understand what is being communicated. However, if a speaker says ‘chair’ the listener will know exactly what the speaker means. In the same breadth, articles help in giving meaning without necessarily carrying meaning. For instance, when a speaker says ‘the chair’, the listener understands that it is a particular chair that is being mentioned. However, saying ‘a chair’ means that there is no specificity.
Quirk et al. argue that articles are the most common central determiners. It means that they are used before nouns (253). They also act as the head in noun phrases. Whereas this appears to be a simple rule to follow, there are exceptions. Perhaps, such exceptions are the reasons that make it difficult for L2 learners to fully understand how to use articles. For example, it is common to use articles before nouns. Saying, ‘a man went to the bank’ is correct. However, with the creativity of poetry and stylistic writing, there are instances where the article ‘a’ used can be dropped. For instance, “and God created man in his image”. In this second example, man is still a noun, but it is not preceded by an article.
It is important to look at the concept of definiteness in analysing the semantic features of articles. Whereas Trenkic observes that it is a universal category of meaning and can be interpreted in all languages (12), Ko, Perovic, and Wexler explain that definiteness is a feature that refers to common items in both the speaker’s and receiver’s discourse (120). Russell disagrees with Trenkic and explains that before there is any form of definiteness, there has to be uniqueness (9). Therefore, it means that articles in the English language are unique, especially the article ‘the’ because it is the only definite article in the English language.
Forms of English articles
Huebner designed a model that analysed the noun phrase in the English language (10). In many instances, articles go hand in hand with nouns and noun phrases, thus understanding the model would help one understand the use of articles. Huebner explained that the use of articles is dependent on whether the noun phrase refers to something specific or whether the thing that is referred to is recognized well by the listener (11). Thus, if the thing referred to is known by the listener, then the article ‘the’ is used. On the other hand, ‘an’ or ‘a’ is used if the thing is not known. In the same breath, if the thing being referred to is the specific article, then ‘the’ is used. If not, articles ‘an’ or ‘a’ will suffice. For example, ‘the man’ can refer to a specific man that both the listener and the speaker know. However, it also could denote one specific man, either known or unknown by both the speaker and the listener. On the contrary, ‘a man’ simply denotes any man, regardless of whether the man is known to the speaker or the listener.
There are two forms of articles in the English language. These are the definite article and the indefinite articles. ‘The’ is the only definite article in the English vocabulary. One can pick out several differences between the two forms of articles from the discussion by Huebner (10).
One major difference between the definite and indefinite articles is the level of definiteness. The easiest way to understand the difference is by looking at nouns. Every noun is categorized as either singular or plural. This gives nouns a numbering system, the same way articles have a definiteness system. ‘The’ is a definite article illuminates more definiteness compared to ‘an’ and ‘a’. Therefore, using ‘the’ makes the reference particular to the listener. On the other hand, using ‘a’ or ‘an’ makes the reference vague.
It also suffices to mention that the two forms of articles rely on the numbering system of the nouns to some extent. Articles are often used before nouns; however, the type of article used can be determined by the plurality or singularity of the noun. For example, saying ‘the man’ denotes a singular man. However, ‘the’ can also be used to refer to many men in ‘the men’. Contrary to this, ‘a’ and ‘an’ can only be used when the noun is in singular form; for example, ‘an apple’ or ‘a car’. It would be grammatically incorrect to say ‘an apples’ or ‘a cars’. Thus, the article is dropped in the case of plurality for words that would use ‘a’ or ‘an’. Therefore, one only has to say ‘cars’, instead of ‘a cars’ and so forth.
Uses of Articles in the English Language
Specific Usage categories of the definite article (the)
The definite article ‘the’ is normally used to show that the noun phrase is definite or specific. It means that the noun phrase can be identified uniquely by both the speaker and the listener (Quirk et al. 32). It suffices to mention that there is no stipulated number of uses for the article ‘the’. Leech and Svartvik give four uses of ‘the’ (34), Quirk et al. give seven uses (21), while Hawkins gives eight uses (11). At this juncture, all the possible uses of the definite article ‘the’ will be combined and analysed.
The definite article ‘the’ is used in specific and immediate situations. For example, if two friends walk in a shop and see a shoe, one friend may say, “this shoe is beautiful”. In grammar, replacing ‘this’ with ‘the’ in this immediate situation is correct. Therefore, the speaker can also say, “the shoe is beautiful”.
Also, ‘the’ can be used to signify a specific, yet cumulative and uncountable noun. For example, for stylistic purposes, one will always hear ‘the ocean’ and not ‘an ocean’. Even though ‘an ocean’ is grammatically correct, it is awkward because the singularity and plurality of ‘ocean’ contrast with the uncountable nature of the water in the ocean. In the same breath, ‘the’ can also be used to identify a larger situation that is common between the speaker and the listener. For example, when a speaker says ‘the Prime Minister went on a trip’, it means that the listener knows which prime minister is referred.
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‘The’ is also used to identify a sole thing. For example, the moon, the sun, and so forth can only be preceded by the article ‘the’. One cannot say ‘a sun’ because there is only one sun; thus, it will always be ‘the sun’. Similarly, one cannot say, “a moon rose yesterday”. Instead, they will say, “the moon rose yesterday”. However, as this may be, it is also critical to point out that the article ‘the’ cannot be used when an adjective is placed in such words. For example, it is grammatically incorrect to say, “The full moon rose yesterday”. Instead, one will say, “a full moon rose yesterday”.
‘The’ is also used as an anaphoric reference. Thus, it is used to refer to something that had been said earlier and it still precedes a noun in most cases. For example, ‘John bought a car yesterday. The car was white.’ In this case, ‘the’ refers to ‘a car’ that was in the first sentence. In this sense, it has been used directly. Similarly, ‘the’ can also be used in anaphoric indirect reference. For example, ‘John bought a car last Wednesday. The colour is white’.
‘The’ can also be used as a cataphoric reference. It would, thereby, focus on the words that follow the noun. For example, in the sentence, “The President of the United States of America attended a seminar in Malawi last week”, ‘the’ relies on the words ‘of the United States of America’. When analysing the given sentence, it is clear that the modification of the noun phrase does not affect the definiteness of the phrase in any way.
Additionally, ‘the’ is used when referring to something extraordinary. For example, one should say ‘the Monalisa’ and not ‘a Monalisa’. The use of ‘the’ in this sense shows that the noun is unique. Another example that can be cited is, ‘This is the last remaining copy’. The sentence hints at extinction, thereby making the last remaining copy unique in its own way.
‘The’ is also used to describe parts of the human body concerning other parts. For example, it is grammatically correct to say, “The liver generates blood components while the heart pumps the blood.” It would be stylistically incorrect to say, “A liver generates blood components while a heart pumps the blood”, even though it is grammatically correct. Moreover, ‘the’ can be used to replace a possessive pronoun. For example, one can easily say, “She pulled him by his hair”. However, one can also say, “She pulled him by the hair”.
‘The’ can also be used as a modifier in superlatives and comparatives (Huddleston and Pullum 32). For example, “Kelly was the slowest runner in high school”. It can also be used to refer to media and things associated with the media; for example, ‘the theatre’ ‘the press’, and ‘the radio’. Some specific words only use the article ‘the’; for instance, ‘only’, ‘same’, and ‘best’, among others.
Usage categories of the indefinite articles
Unlike the article ‘the’, scholars appear to agree on several uses of the articles ‘a’ and ‘an’. They are known as the indefinite articles because they do not refer to something unique or something that the speaker and listener know. For example, whereas it is grammatically correct to say ‘the apple’ and ‘an apple’, the meanings differ. In ‘the apple’, both the speaker and listener know the specific apple that is being discussed. However, in ‘an apple’, it is more general, referring to any apple. Thus, the first use of ‘a’ and ‘an’ refers to no specific noun (Maratsos 36).
The second use is a reference to a noun that has not been introduced in the conversation before. For instance, it is grammatically incorrect to say, “The apple fell from the tree. An apple was sweet”. However, one can say, “An apple fell from the tree. The apple was sweet”. In the first example, the first sentence (The apple fell from the tree) is correct. However, the sentence that follows (An apple was sweet) contradicts with the first because it is assumed that the speaker and the listener both know the specific apple that is referred to in the first sentence. In the second example, the first sentence (An apple fell from the tree) assumes that the listener does not know the apple that fell. However, the second sentence (The apple was sweet) refers to the ‘an apple’ that is in the first sentence, thereby making it grammatically correct.
As an exception, indefinite articles can be used to refer to parts of the body that are double; for instance, arms, legs, kidneys, and ears. In that case, it would be grammatically incorrect to say, “He has broken an arm that he writes with”. Instead, one would say, “He has broken the arm that he writes with”. On the contrary, saying ‘he has broken an arm’ is grammatically correct because there are two arms in the human body. It is also grammatically correct to use indefinite articles when a singular body organ is preceded by an adjective. For example, ‘he has a failed liver’, instead of ‘he has the failed liver. Another example that can be cited is ‘he has a broken arm’, instead of ‘he has the broken arm’. Other uses of indefinite articles include the introduction of descriptive exclamations; for instance, ‘what a fool!’ Jesperson proposes other uses of indefinite articles, including denoting singularity and describing qualities (61). Jesperson also explains that indefinite articles can be used, in special instances, before a proper noun; for instance, ‘he is a Washington (to refer to the family) (61).
Specific usage categories of the zero article
“The zero article is considered the most indefinite of the articles whose general function is to remove the boundaries that make nouns discrete” (Master, The English Article System 217). Many a time, the zero article is used with count nouns that are plural and uncountable. One function of the zero article is the replacement of ‘some’. For example, the sentence ‘I have bought some mangoes’ is grammatically correct. However, one can also say, “I have bought mangoes”. Also, the zero article is used in prepositional phrases of place (Leech 13). For example, ‘I went to school’. There are rare cases in which the zero article has been used with singular nouns. In such cases, the noun communicates a task or role (Brown 16). For example, ‘Jocelyn is cheer captain of the school cheerio’.
Teaching English Articles to Arab Learners
As mentioned, second language learners often have a hard time using articles correctly. The main reason for this is the many rules that are associated with the use of articles. Additionally, there are exceptions to the rules that make the situation more confusing (Thomas 359). Parrott observes that many second language students also transfer things that they know from their first language to English (19). This not only confuses the students, but it also makes communication difficult, if not impossible.
In the specific case of Arabic speakers, their native language only has one article, which is the definite article. The uses of the definite article in Arabic are very different compared to the uses of the definite article in English. Thus, there is miscommunication when an Arabic speaker learning English tries to use English articles like the Arabic definite article is used (Trenkie 116).
One of the errors that Arabic students learning English do is the deletion of the article. Whereas there are situations that do not take up any article, many nouns and noun phrases often need articles to make sense. Swan and Smith examine four difficulties that Arabic learners encounter when using the English articles (16). The first difficulty is the above-mentioned deletion of the articles. For instance, it is very common to find students saying, “This is car”, instead of “This is a car”. It suffices to note that in Arabic, plural countable nouns often do not use articles; thus, Arabic students employ the same in the English language.
In the same fashion, Swan and Smith observe that the use of articles where they are not supposed to be used is very common among Arabic speakers, especially the indefinite articles (16). For example, Arabic speakers often make sentences such as “these are a cars”, instead of “these are cars”.
The third difficulty identified by Swan and Smith is the use of the definite article where the zero article should be used (17). For example, it is grammatically correct to say, “We live in Canada”. However, numerous Arabic students say “We live in India”.
The fourth difficulty that Arabic students learning English face arise from the interference related to Arabic genitive construction. For example, it is grammatically correct to say, “The doctor’s car” in English. It is also grammatically correct in Arabic to say, “Car the teacher”. Therefore, communication becomes difficult and inappropriate when the student translates directly from Arabic to English (Master, Information Structure and English 332).
To solve some of these issues, scholars such as Whitman have come up with models that simplify the rules used when applying articles in the English language (256). Whitman argues that teaching the students that articles should be used on countable singular and plural words is easier than telling them not to use the articles at all (257). On the contrary, Pica suggests that infusing daily use of the English language among such students is the best way for them to learn (224).
The classification of the English articles is very complex because it is based on several heterogeneous factors. Lexical, discourse and general knowledge are among the factors that have a crucial role in the selection of English articles. The effectiveness of the article teaching strategies relies more on the learner’s age, culture, and level of proficiency. Presenting the rules of using the articles at the early stages of learning English would be less useful than providing L2 learners with expensive exposure to the natural language in different contexts. The complicated multi-componential nature of the article system in English requires that Arabic speakers learning English should be taught gradually.
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