Sunday, April 15, 2007

More about articles: clarity vs correctness

Tai's recent question reminds me of a very important point that can be too easy to overlook.
Do we always have to use the definite article "the" for specific object that both the person speaking and the listener know? For example, "The car over there is fast." I'm confused. If the speaker and the listener are seeing the car for for the first time, is it wrong to use a/an or not? "A car over there is fast."
Both "The car over there is fast" and "A car over there is fast" are correct sentences. However, the meaning is not the same. You can be grammatically correct and still get the meaning wrong. Conversely, you can get the meaning right and make a grammatical mistake. Which do you think is more important? Do you want to make sense or do you want to sound good? Of course you want both, but effective communication is always more important.

The car over there is fast  = That specific car over there is fast. Maybe there is only one car over there. It does not really matter whether or not the speaker and the listener "know" or have seen the specific car before as long as it is clear that the reference is to a particular car. Using modifiers helps too.

There is a fast car over there = one of the cars over there is fast; somewhere over there is a fast car

You can add modifiers (The black BMW with the chrome luggage rack is a fast car) or rephrase. In the second sentence, "There is a fast car over there" would be a better construction.

Articles are such small words but are big contributors to confusion and lack of clarity. They are not alone though. What are some others? Knowing what they are and why or how they make what you say or write unclear helps. You know where to look for problems when you edit. Also as you become more aware, you will be able to avoid problems.

Other problem areas:
Word choice
Word order
Slang and colloquial or idiomatic expressions

Why do you think these problem areas interfere with meaning? What are your major problem areas? Are there others not on this list that you can think of?



  1. Hi Ms. Vanessa,

    Articles are very important in day to day life for expressing effectively. I am going to surf all the links and will try to master the use of a, an and the.



  2. Ms. Vanessa, I think sometimes we use 'the' just to start a sentence.

    Am I in the wrong?


  3. Rajeev, please explain what you mean by "articles are very important in day to day life."

    How and why are articles important? Expressing WHAT effectively? (the verb "express" always takes an object)

  4. Hello everyone :-)

    In my case, articles important to me when I do the english examination. That mean if I got lots of red mark,my grad points will descent to hell *sob*

    For example some situation I am confused.

    ___ fat man sit under the tree. He is looking at ____ dog.

    When I see "fat man" I think it should be "The" because this noun are modified by Adjective but the answer is "A" ???

    Anyway, A or The I'm not serious now because whenever I use A or The,and listener understand me that enough. I believe that even native speaker can make a mistake as well.
    or not ?


  5. Ermm, thank you for THE links in this topic. I am going to learn them now.

    See you
    Tai ;)

  6. Tai

    There are many, may fat men in the world. Unless it is crystal clear that the sentence refers to a specific fat man, the "A fat man" is the correct usage. Context makes a difference but is rarely provided with single sentence exercises.

    You and your listeners may think they "understand" you, but only imperfectly. Using an indefinite article for a definite one and vice versa changes the meaning

    Article use is idiomatic to some extent. Therefore, native speakers do not or only very rarely make mistakes using articles. Beside, claiming "everybody does it" is never a good excuse for making mistakes.

  7. Teacher Vanessa,

    If I'd like to make much more clear in sentence and to be definite nouns. How many ways can I do that ?

    As I can understand now, I'm always use something to modify that nouns such as adjective, preposition phrase or clause.


  8. Tai, I'm not quite sure I understand your request. If you are asking how to improve your understanding and usage of definite articles, reading extensively, lots of listening and working practice exercises.

    What do you mean by always using something to modify nouns? Although modifiers make a noun more specific, there is no hard and fast rule about modifiers and definite articles.

  9. erm, I mean I use something to emphasize general noun to be more specific noun and then I can use definite article.

    That is what make sense me when I'm writing, but I'm not sure how to use.

    A fat man sit under a tree.

    The fat man who is my father's friend sit under the apple tree near my house.

  10. Dear Vanessa!
    I am thinking that very helpful your link about the sentence clarity. Sometimes, the people wants to express some important but if they don't knows how to pass from old information to new information, their sentences are not clear. This is my problem too but if we will to write in English correctly and with clarity, we are need more such links!


  11. Mark

    Reading & listening - lots of it - help too. Eventually you assimilate usages thoroughly enough to make them your own. It can be slow. We can understand usages long before we are really comfortable using them ourselvs.


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