Achieve a More Natural Accent with Articles: Part 1

“The”  – “A”  –  “An”

Do you have trouble knowing when to use “the,” “an,” and “a?”  Those short three words are very common in English.  Because they are common, they are the sore spot; the trouble area for some accented individuals.  I recently told one of my clients that the targets for our next session were those exact words.  “Oh, those are words I really don’t understand how to use” she responded in relief.  “I really want to learn about them.”

Our clients achieve a more natural-sounding accent by learning when and where to use articles.  In general, we use articles to describe a noun or a noun phrase. We use “the” (considered a definite article) when we want to classify the noun as definite,  identified, or specific.  We use “a” and “an” in order to classify the noun as nonspecific.

Agreed upon Noun

We use “the” to indicate that the noun is agreed upon by the speaker and listener.  For example, when you’re leaving to go grocery shopping, you might tell someone, “I’m going to the store.”  You say “the,” not “a” because your listener has prior knowledge of the specific store being discussed.   If you had gone shopping for clothes, you may say “I went to the mall.”  Your listener and you have prior knowledge of this specific mall.  Let’s look at another example.  If you had talked to your employee or colleague about a proposal for an upcoming project, you might say, “I understand you finished the proposal.”  You and your employee or colleague both agree upon the “proposal.”

Classify the Noun as Indefinite

We use “a” and “an” when we want to classify the noun as indefinite.  We use “a” and “an” to:

  1. Introduce a noun to the listener that is specific for the speaker but not the listener.  For example, you might say to your colleague, “I learned a very useful communication technique today.”  You are familiar with the technique but your listener is not.
  2. Show that the noun does not have a specific referent for either the speaker or the listener.  For example, “I need a new pair of shoes.”  Let’s take a different example using the word “mall.”  You’re friend is talking about an upcoming trip.  She will be doing some shopping in the city where she’ll be staying on her trip.  She says, “I’m going to go to a mall.”  She uses “a” because she and you don’t have prior knowledge about the malls in that city.
  3. To refer to a noun that is nonspecific for the speaker but which is assumed to be specific for the listener.  For example, you might say to an employee “I understand you’ve finished a proposal for our next project.”

Depends on Familiarity

Let’s look at a situation when  you could use “the” and “a” depending on the familiarity of the noun to the listener.  You see a dog in the street.  You exclaim “There’s a dog running in the middle of the street!”  The dog is specific to you but not to your listener.  Your friend or spouse may respond to you by asking, “Where’s there a dog?”  He used “a” because the dog is still nonspecific to your friend or spouse but is assumed to be specific to you.  You then could respond “There’s the dog!”  At that point, the dog has been agreed upon by you and your friend or spouse as you point to the dog and your friend or spouse sees the dog.  We use “an” instead of “a” when the noun after the article starts with a vowel sound such as “a,” “e,” “i, o, or u.

When to Omit “the”

Omit “the” in certain situations.  Don’t use “the” if you’re talking about:

  1. Singular cities, countries, continents: a singular city; “I’m from Chicago.”; a singular country: “I’ve been to Brazil.”; a singular continent: “I’ve yet to visit Europe.”
  2. A singular family name: “I saw Mrs. Gunderson.”
  3. A mountain or lake: “I’ve been to Lake Tahoe.”
  4. An island: “My husband went to Hawaii.”
  5. A meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner): I ate breakfast at 6:30, lunch at 12:30, and dinner at 5:00.”
  6. A specific color or a game/sport: “My favorite color is purple.” “I like football.”
  7. A language: “Speaking English comes more naturally since I’ve been mastering my accent.”
  8. A street, square, or park: “I turned onto Washington instead of Irwin.”
  9. A magazine: “I love National Geographic.”
  10. A bridge, station, or airport: “I’m leaving from Heathrow.”
  11. An airline or company: “Are you flying Delta?”
  12. Illnesses, diabetes: “This patient has a history of diabetes.”
  13. A restaurant, hotel, bank, or store when it’s in the genitive: “We’re going to Subway.”
  14. A planet: “You can see Mars tonight.”
  15. A title: “I conferred with Dr. Sharma.”
  16. Heaven, hell, paradise: “It’s like Heaven here.”
  17. Means of transport with the word “by” before them: “I arrived by plane and then traveled by bus.”
  18. The word “work” meaning “place of work”: I’m leaving for work at 7:30.”
  19. Percentages, fractions: “My accent improved by 50 percent.”
  20. A noun + number: “I’m staying in room 237.”

We note that many of the above examples are examples include proper nouns.

Learn many more rules and hints when using articles.  Watch for our next blog, “Achieve a More Natural Accent with Articles: Part 2”.

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