Tackling articles: never an easy road for ESL learners

To use or not to use articles, that is the question

What are articles?

Grammar-wise, articles are types of adjectives which specify the noun they designate. There are two types of articles: One is the indefinite article (“a” and “an”) that denotes an unspecified item, as in “a simple man” and “an education.” We know there is one gentleman and one educational experience, but we don’t know which one we are talking about (or let’s pretend so). The other is the definite article “the,” that denotes specified items, as in “the other guy.” We all know who this person is, except for husbands.

That’s it. Case closed, except it is not, at least for English as a Second Language (ESL) writers.

Articles: a tall order for ESL writers

To us ESL writers, few grammar rules are more difficult to master than the usage of articles. I have been using English for almost thirty years on and off, and for the past several years I have been writing extensively in English as a professional technical writer and a blogger, churning out more than one thousand words per day. And yet I still cannot use articles correctly, a fact my editor and playwright loves to point out, “literally,” in every piece of writing I submit to her. (And I appreciate it dearly 🙂

My question, or conclusion on rainy cold days, is: Is it only me? I cannot even write down my feelings because I am not sure if I should say “the usage of articles” or “usage of articles” and then I turn into my eternal ally: TV.

Fortunately, it is not just me; the usage of articles is a universal problem for ESL writers. Julia Miller at Flinders University Student Learning Center points out the complexity of articles for ESL writers in an issue of the International Education Journal as follows:

In almost any piece of writing submitted by a non-native speaker of English, three things will often indicate that the writer is working in a second language: the choice of tense and aspect, the subject and verb agreements, and the use of articles (the, a, an). While verb problems can largely be overcome and the mistakes in agreements eliminated by careful proofreading, the problems with articles frequently remain….Hewson has called the English article system a “psychomechanism”, through which native speakers use articles correctly but unconsciously.

Change the unknowns into knowns

The last word in the previous paragraph, “unconsciously,” is the key to understanding why native speakers “get it.” Unfortunately, that key word is also a synonym for “talent,” or even “gift,” for us ESL writers. It is an uphill battle, but there is hope: conquer the exceptions. Here, “exceptions” actually mean rules that are not obvious at first sight.

In the next entry, I will list the five of those hidden rules that continuously give me headaches; it is an attempt to both help me become a better writer and to share the lessons with those who are struggling with the usage of articles.