Achieve a More Natural Sounding Accent with Articles: Part 3

In “Achieve a More Natural Sounding Accent with Articles: Part 2,” we learned that mass nouns use the article “the” when we don’t add information.  We use the article “a” when we add information to a mass noun.  We also learned that many English language learners omit the indefinite article before singular predicate nouns (meaning the noun is in the comment versus topic position). Let’s look further at article usage, so you can MASTER YOUR ACCENT and use these tools to advance your career and personal life!

Do not use “the” with plural or non-count nouns when you are referring to them in general.

  1. Computers are time-saving devices” versus “The computers are time-saving devices.”  Here, we are talking about computers in general.  Therefore, we don’t use “the.”
  2.  “In some Asian countries, rice is preferred to other grains” versus “In some Asian countries, the rice is preferred to other grains.”  Here, “rice” is a non-count noun.  We don’t say “rices”.  The only way “rice” is said is “rice.”  We could say “There are three grains of rice;” however, we wouldn’t say “There are three rices.”  That is how we categorize “rice” as a non-count noun.  The same is true for “bacon, material, clothing, etc., as mentioned in “Achieve a More Natural Sounding Accent with Articles: Part 2.”

Do not use both indefinite and definite articles to modify nouns which have been modified by other noun markers, such as possessive nouns, numbers, and pronouns.

  1. Possessive nouns: John’s tests, Julie’s sister, Jane’s diagnosis
  2. Numbers: three lab values, twelve cranial nerves, eight lucky numbers
  3. Pronouns: my, your, his, her, its, our, their, whose, this, that, these, those, all, any, each, either, every, few, many, more, most, much, neither, several, some.

Note that there are common exceptions for pronouns: a few, the most, all the

  1. There were a few abnormal findings revealed in the radiology report.
  2. The patient desired the most qualified specialist with whom she could also personally connect.
  3. All the lab values indicated a specific diagnosis.

Do not use “a” or “an” to modify an abstract noun or noun used in generalization.  For example, the following are abstract or generalized:

  1. Life (you could say “Life is what you make it” or “She lived live to the fullest.”  If you were talking about a specific life of someone, you could say “She lived a life full of challenges” because you are talking about someone’s specific life.)
  2. Death (it would be grammatical to to say “Death can be inspirational as well as sad for people.”  You could also say “I need to have off on Tuesday.  There was a death in our family and I’m attending the funeral.”  Here, you are referring to a specific death.  You introduced a noun to the listener that is specific for you, the speaker, but not the listener).

In some cases, it is acceptable to use either “the” or “a” or to omit the article completely and use the plural form of the noun.  These are cases where the following are being discussed: GENERICALLY describing classes of humans, animals, organs of the body, plants, and complex inventions/devices.  See the following example referring to humans:

  1. The Germans use speech sounds with throat friction.” In this pattern, is used only to express generic facts about a human group that is of a religious, political, national, social, or occupational/professional nature.  Group affiliation is critical.  When referring to, for example,  wolves, in general, you would not say “The wolves are carnivorous.”  You would say “Wolves are carnivorous.”  See #4.
  2. The German uses speech sounds with throat friction.”  In this pattern, class membership is science-based rather than group-based.  It predominates in informative or technical writing on animals, plants, musical instruments, and complex inventions or devices.  It is not appropriate for simple inanimate objects.  For example, you would not say “The book fills leisure time for many people.”  You would say “Books fill leisure time for many people.”  You could also say “A book fills leisure time for many people.”
  3. A German uses speech sounds with throat friction.”  This pattern is the most concrete way of expressing a generality.  It is used most appropriately when the context is specific.  For example:  “I don’t know about you but I think a wife and a husband don’t have to be bound by typical roles.”  Another example: Let’s say Dr. Bensi talked to his patient about completing a video swallow study.  The patient calls the hosptial and asks, “Does a video swallow study require a written order from my doctor?”
  4. Germans use speech sounds with throat friction.”  This pattern is slightly less formal than the pattern in #2.  It occurs more frequently than pattern #1.  It can be used in all the environments where pattern #2 occurs; and, in addition, it can be used to make generic statements about simple inanimate objects.  It is more concrete and frequent than pattern #2.

All are acceptable; however, you could choose the article or omission of the article based on the context.  It is indicated to use “The Germans” when you have previously specified to your listener that you are talking about this topic and would like to focus on Germans versus a different nationality.  For example, consider the following: “There are differences in the speech sounds of languages.  For example, Germans generally pronounce the American “h” sound  with a friction quality in their throats.   Romanians, Poles, and Russians also use friction in their throats.  The Russian, however, sometimes omits the entire sound “h,” whereas the Poles and Romanians typically don’t omit the use of “h.”  I used “The Russian” because I had previously talked about Russians.

You have read the first three parts to “Achieve a More Natural Sounding Accent with Articles.”  Hopefully, you are becoming more confident as to when to use the articles “the” and “a/an.”  We look forward to sharing Part 4 soon to come.


The Writing Center at Washington University in Saint Louis

Marianne C., & Larsen-Freeman D. (1983). The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course.


MehmetJune 5th, 2012 at 9:34 am

Good clean presentation of an important concept.

Cher GundersonJune 6th, 2012 at 5:59 am

Mehmet, I am glad you found the article practical. Out of curiosity, what is your first language?

Cher Gunderson

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