Three little articles (the, a, an)

They’ll blow your text down…

I’m dedicating this post to the definite and indefinite articles because I frequently see them misused. Such tiny little words and yet they hold meaning which can give readers incorrect information and lead to misunderstanding. Incorrect use of articles also makes writing incorrect grammatically and, as editors, we can’t allow that!

Indefinite articles

‘A’ and ‘an’ are the indefinite articles. As the name implies, these are used when the object or noun referred to is general, rather than specific. For example: A bird flew over the roof to its nest.

If the word following the indefinite article begins with a vowel or has a vowel sound when pronounced, ‘an’ is used. For example: An hour has passed and she has not returned. An angry mob took to the streets.

Definite article

There is one definite article ‘the’. This little word defines what it precedes, quite specifically. Readers will know that it indicates a particular thing. For example: The hefty and unshaven man intimidates her (rather than men in general).

If we look at the sentences above and change the indefinite article to the definite article, consider how the meaning changes: The bird flew over the roof to its nest. There was only one bird referred to. The hour has passed and she has not returned. It was that hour, specifically, that was significant to the context. The angry mob took to the streets. This could mean other people did not take to the street, only the angry people did. The use of ‘the’ defines the subject more clearly.

Problems with usage

Muddling indefinite and definite:

Articles need to be used correctly to ensure meaning is not lost. In medico-legal work, for example, I edit text about road accidents, among other things. The authors often make statements that say the following: Since the accident, she is fearful of the road. While this could be true, clarity is needed on whether the road refers only to the one on which the accident occurred or whether she remains fearful of roads in general. In a medico-legal context, this is important as it points to the extent of psychological distress associated with the accident (generalised anxiety or specific).

Writers need to be sure that the use of indefinite and definite articles relates clearly to the context. If specificity is required, it’s important to use ‘the’, but if referring to general terms, it’s equally necessary to use ‘an’ or ‘a’ so that the correct message is conveyed.

Parallel structure:

Articles must be used accurately within specific sentence structures to maintain what is known as parallel sentence construction.

If one is listing items, be sure to use the article only at the start of the list or for each item but do not use the article for some items and not others. For example: My mother enjoyed the dance, the food and the company rather than My mother enjoyed the dance, food and the company (leaving food without the definite article). One can also write: My mother enjoyed the dance, food and company (the initial use of the definite article stands for each subsequent item).  

Similarly, when using the indefinite article, it’s important to make sure that each item is congruent to the indefinite article used. For instance, the following is inaccurate: My son takes an apple and pear to school every day. This should read: My son takes an apple and a pear to school every day. It would, however, be correct to say: The cars were lined up in an organised and orderly manner (‘an’ is correctly used at the start only as it corresponds to both ‘organised’ and ‘orderly’).

Article-noun-verb agreement:

This one is trickier than the others but deserves a mention. When referring to a group of items or quantity, the use of a definite or indefinite article in front of the quantity determines the verb following it. If the quantity is preceded by an indefinite article (‘a’ or ‘an’) the verb should agree with the noun in front of the verb. However, if the definite article (‘the’) is used to describe the quantity, the verb corresponds to the quantity rather than the noun in front of the verb. Very confusing? Have a look at these examples:

A section of pies that Jamie ate were overcooked. (‘were’ agrees with ‘pies’ because of use of indefinite article ‘A’)

The section of pies that Jamie ate was overcooked. (‘was’ agrees with ‘section’ because of use of definite article ‘The’)

The English language can trick us all. Nevertheless, onward we march and upward we climb as we continue to pick it apart and understanding its finer elements. I hope this was useful and look forward to cleaner texts and congruent use of the articles ‘the’, ‘a’, and ‘an’. (Yes, I deliberately employed the definite article for effect and clarity!).

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