Tackling articles: five articles traps ESL learners fall into

In a perfect world of language, everything would work according to simple rules. Dictionaries would have fewer pages and grammar boot camps would be shut down. Well, reality does not work that way and here we are, struggling with mundane grammar rules such as…the usage of articles. Here I will present the five exceptions for using articles that are difficult to master for ESL writers (read: me). I hope this list will be useful for any non-native English writer attempting to write well in English.

Nouns that can be both countable and uncountable

Some nouns can be both countable and uncountable (or abstract concepts vs. specific instances), with a small twist in their meaning.

  • Correct usage: He has much experience.
    Here, “experience” is an uncountable noun and refers to abstract knowledge or skills. Therefore, we do not need an article.
  • Correct usage: It was an experience.
    Here, “experience” is a countable noun and refers to a particular instance of event. Therefore, we need an article.
  • Correct usage: I don’t drink coffee.
    Here, “coffee” is used to generalize a type of drink called coffee, which is an uncountable noun. Therefore, there is no need for an article.
  • Correct usage: Would you like a coffee?
    Here, “coffee” is actually an abbreviated version of “a cup of coffee,” and we add the “a” to emphasize the hidden word “cup.”

Nouns that do not change in their plural forms

Some nouns can take plural forms but do not change from their singular forms. Let’s take the word “advice” for instance.

  • Correct usage, singular form: Here is my advice.
    The “advice” in this sentence means a piece of advice.
  • Correct usage, plural form: I will give you more advice.
    The “advice” in this sentence means multiple pieces of advice. The trap ESL learners fall into is to use indefinite articles a/an in front of a noun whenever it can point to multiple instances.
  • Incorrect usage, singular form: I will give you an advice.
    The word “advice” is an uncountable noun, therefore we cannot use “an” in front of it.
  • Incorrect usage, plural form: I will give you more advices.
    The word “advice” does not change in its plural form.

Proper nouns that require or do not require the definite article “the”

Proper nouns do not require an article, right? For example: My name is Isao Kato. / Let’s go to New York. Not so fast, the reality is messy. Even the grammar books admit that there are no formal rules and they recommend the time-tested method of memorization to tackle this issue. Here I will list some of the correct but illogical usages of “the” in front of proper nouns. Let’s go back to our fifth grade and restart word games.

  • Lake Michigan BUT the Nile (They are both about geographical locations.)
  • State Street BUT the Empire State Building (They are both about landmarks.)
  • Great Britain BUT the Soviet Union (They are both about countries.)
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology BUT the University of Virginia (They are both about educational institutes.)
  • Activate Microsoft Windows BUT Turn the MacBook on (They are both about computer systems.)

Countable nouns used in generalization

When generalizing, countable nouns can take a definite article or change into plural forms.

  • Correct usage: Helicopters are the new choice of transportation for the rich.
    Here, by using the plural form “helicopters” we know that the author is referring to helicopters in general, not a specific model.
  • Correct usage: The helicopter is the new choice of transportation for the rich.
    Here, the context makes it clear that “the helicopter” is referring to helicopters in general.
  • Incorrect usage: A helicopter is the new choice of transportation for the rich.
    This sentence reads like “using only one helicopter is the new choice…” which might be cool in the real world but is not the intended usage here.
  • Incorrect usage: Helicopter is the new choice of transportation for the rich.
    Never use a countable noun without pluralizing it or adding an article, unless you are writing a child’s dialogue: “Daddy, it is car!”

Nouns with articles understood by the context

We use the definite article “the” as a writer when we assume the readers know what we are referring to. This issue is easy if we are writing sentences such as “My boss gave me a mission to buy a tall half-skinny half-1 percent extra hot split quad shot (two shots decaf, two shots regular) latte with whip at the Starbucks on Center Street.” In a fictional world, there is only one Starbucks on a street, therefore we can use the “the.” But what if we are referring to an everyday object? Here are some examples of nouns taking “the” because we all imagine one object according to the context.

  • Correct usage: Close the door.
    There is usually one door in a room, the one both the writer and reader can imagine.
    Notes from my editor:
    There is often implied special knowledge. Imagine a married couple, he often leaves the front door in the living room open, it is a bone of contention between them. He walks into the bathroom, where she is brushing her air, and she asks “Did you close the door?” He knows which door she is referring to. (Or to be precisely correct, “He knows to which door she is referring).
  • Correct usage: I am going to the library today.
    There is usually only one library in the neighborhood, so everybody can imagine that exact library at the corner of the city hall. But…this usage is also a victim of “it depends”:
  • Correct usage (in American English): I am going to the hospital.
  • Correct usage (in British English): I am going to hospital.

Conclusion: keep learning

As the last example in the previous paragraph shows, there is no end in sight when it comes to grammatical exceptions in English. Keeping the types of exceptions in our mind helps, but that is only the beginning. As a wise man once said, in the end, persistence triumphs talent (or unconsciousness in our case).
Here are even more learning materials for you grammar masochists.