The Articles (1)
Now I could have called this piece ‘The Articles’ but instead I chose to leave out ‘the’ and just call it ‘articles’. Interesting? Well maybe not at the moment but I will come back to this point later when I hope that I have explained in some detail how we use articles in English.
Let’s have a look at the word ‘article’ itself. It can have different meanings. If you look it up in a dictionary, you’ll find that it comes from French like so many words in the language. What would we do without French and all those other languages from which we’ve helped ourselves to words? Anyhow, in French a long time ago it indicated a small joint or connection or part. And from then on the word ‘articulate’ developed which means speak in a clear way where all the parts of what you say are joined up and make sense. Today we use the word to mean a thing that belongs to a group or class such as an article of clothing. It can also suggest simply a piece of material goods or property. Imagine a police station where the officer in charge is about to put someone in the cell having arrested him. In the report the officer will have to describe what he has taken from the person he’s arrested, in other words his property, so that when our poor friend who’s been taken to the cell, eventually goes home, he will get these things back. These things will be described in the report as various ‘articles’. Also in an official way ‘article’ has the sense of an item or section of something like a contract or indeed a religion. Different religions have a history explaining how followers should conduct their lives. These are often referred to as ‘articles of faith’ or belief. Yet another meaning refers to something that has been written about a particular subject. If you like these ‘conversations about English’ are articles I’ve written about different aspects of the language.
Clearly ‘article’ isn’t the most exciting word in the language but I’m trying to guide you towards the real significance of the word. What I hope to suggest to you is that the word has a connection with words like ‘label’ or ‘device’. In other words it acts as a kind of support and can’t really stand on its own and that’s why in its grammatical job or function it attaches itself to a noun. It’s a word that is like an addition. And, in the grammatical sense of the word, as you probably know, there are two types of article: definite and indefinite. ‘Definite’ has the sense of being precise and exact. Often in conversation we want to make sure that something is agreed and planned. To the question: Are you sure you’ll be able to come on holiday with us because I don’t want to book rooms at the hotel and then find you can’t come? The other person says: Don’t worry. I can assure you that’s definite. I shall be able to come. And of course ‘indefinite’ is the opposite. An indefinite period of time describes a length of time which is not exact, in other words you don’t know how long it’s going on for.
So we come to two articles: indefinite ‘a’ or ‘an’ and definite ‘the’. Now remember we have the alternative ‘an’ when it is used before a vowel sound and the important word there is ‘sound’. It isn’t necessarily always before a vowel itself. And the reason for using it, is simply that it’s easier to say. Try to say ‘a’ before a word like ‘elephant’ and I think you’ll agree that it’s much easier to say’ an elephant’, ‘an idea’ ‘an invention’ and so on. But beware with words where the first letter isn’t pronounced like ‘honest’ ‘honour’ and ‘hour’. We have to say: an honest person, It’s an honour to meet you and we are an hour late. Before those last words that I’ve mentioned, ‘the’ changes too, not in spelling but in pronunciation as ‘the’ is pronounced with a long ‘e’ sound. Again try saying ‘the’ with a short ‘e’ before ‘elephant’, difficult isn’t it?
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