Posted tagged ‘articles’

Student Stumper 41: Would you want to be (a/the/Ø) king for a day? Which article is correct?

May 7, 2014

"Crown" by Jason TrainIn my last post, I mentioned two recent grammar points that learners prompted me to reflect on. Here’s my discussion of the second along with a classroom activity.

QUESTION: Does a singular noun always need an article?

ANSWER: No. In fact, I could ask, “Do you want to be a king?” or “Do you want to be the king?” or “Do you want to be king?” All three could be correct. Why?

Why indeed! A learner questioned my wording when I asked, “Would you want to be president for a day?”  Hmm. Why didn’t I use an article before president? It came out rather naturally, and I didn’t pause to think why I had no article. As I reflected, I knew that “be a president” referred to the chance to be any president of any country in the world. That wasn’t what I meant. I could have used “be the president” to clarify that it was an opportunity to lead one’s own country, a specific position within a specific country. So why is a zero article also possible in this second case?

Biber and his co-writers discuss the use of the zero article with institutions, from public places to meals For example, I could write, “After church, the family had breakfast.”  My use of articles is appropriate because I’m using church and breakfast as institutions. “What is important to note is that  these structures involve nouns which in other contexts behave as ordinary countable nouns” (261).

The dictionary solves this dual nature by listing words like dinner as a countable and uncountable noun. That’s fine for meals and places, such as college and jail, but what about positions, like president? “President” is listed only as a countable noun in the LDCE, so we can’t say it has an abstract use. Biber explains that predicate nouns naming a unique role or position can appear with either the zero article or the definite article (262).

To help upper level students grasp this finer point of article usage, I offer a short activity. Please see my King or Queen_handout.



Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.


Photo credit:

“Crown” by Jason Train.

Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

The Art of Teaching Articles (Part Three)

February 10, 2012

Recently I faced the challenge of explaining article usage to my beginner student, Natasha, whom you may know from my new series on YouTube. I hadn’t planned to focus on the difference between indefinite and definite articles yet, but as you know students’  needs and interests can easily change our game plan. I ended up creating a short lesson on articles. I felt challenged to explain the rules with so few words in Natasha’s vocabulary. Off-camera I offered some explanation in Russian, but I also tried to lead my student to a correct understanding through examples in English in order to make use of the language she does understand.

Some time ago I posted several ideas for presenting and teaching articles. When writing Part One and Part Two of “The Art of Teaching Articles,” I had intermediate and advanced students in mind.  I thought it would be a good idea to round out that collection of activities by adding some suggestions for basic level students.

I Spy  –

  1. Pair students up. Student A states what s/he sees. The student should name singular nouns.  (“I see a red bag.” = indefinite article)
  2. Student B locates the object and makes a statement about it. (“Yes. I see it. The bag is on the floor.”)
  3. Have students take alternate making the opening statements.

Keep & Toss

  1. Have students check their pockets, bags, and purses. They should find find two objects to show the class. Demonstrate by taking two items from your desk , bag, or pockets. (Choose one object you want to keep and one that you can throw away.)
  2. The class will place all objects on a central desk or table. When a person adds to the pile, s/he should identify the object. (“This is a ticket.” / “This is a book.”) Note new vocabulary on the board.
  3. Help students decide what to throw in the trash. (“What can we throw away?” – Demonstrate by tossing one item in the trash can.) Students can call out their suggestions. (“The paper…. the receipt…”)
  4. Allow students to claim the remaining items on the table. Demonstate by claiming yours. (“The blue pen is mine.”)
  5. You may choose to call attention to the pattern of articles just used. Explain the importance of first and second mention as well as “the” being a specific reference to something – an object understood by the listener.

Do you have a favorite way of presenting and practicing articles at the beginning level? Please feel free to post your ideas.

Student Stumper 31: Can abstract nouns be specific?

November 2, 2011

QUESTION: How can I know if an uncountable noun, which is modified by an adjective, is specific or not? Should I ignore the modifier when deciding the use of the definite article or zero article?

ANSWER: This question was recently posted on my YouTube channel. The advanced ELL provided lengthy examples of abstract nouns in context with and without the definite article. I gave an initial response already, but the topic truly warrants further discussion. Would you care to join in?

What exactly is confusing about the use of articles with abstract nouns? There are at least two sources of confusion:

  • (1) Confusion can arise from the guideline we often give about generic and specific references. Learners might associate abstract nouns with generic references and conclude that the definite article can’t be used with words such as intervention, affection, and politics.
  • (2) Confusion can also stem from the assumption that a modifier makes a noun specific, so phrases like biomedial intervention, genuine affection, and British politics are specific and require use of the definite article.

Explanation 1: A noun that is both abstract and uncountable can be used in either a generic or specific reference.

a. intervention

  • (generic) The problem escalated, and [zero article] intervention was required.
  • (specific) Despite the timely intervention, a positive outcome was not attained.
  • (specific) Unfortunately, the intervention was not successful.

b. affection

  • (generic) [zero article] Affection between owners and pets is natural.
  • (specific) The deep affection between the woman and her cat was obvious.
  • (specific) The affection between those those was genuine.

Explanation 2:  As seen above, it’s the context that makes a noun specific, and not necessarily the use of a modifier. It was the intervention which was needed and which was given in a timely manner.  It was the affection which existed between the woman and her cat. Compare:

c. intervention: They say that [zero article] biomedical intervention can slow down the aging process.

d. affection: [zero article] Deep affection among cousins is common.

In the above examples, the modifier explained the kind or type, but it didn’t make the abstract, uncountable noun specific.

Explanation 3: A noun can be both uncountable and countable. Politics is an example:

e.  politics

  • (generic – uncountable) John entered [zero article] politics at a young age.
  • (generic – plural noun) I try not to get involved in [zero article] office politics.
  • (specific – plural noun) The office politics continued to make my job harder, so I eventually left the company.

Feel free to contribute your own examples.

Where in the World….? Helping students use articles with languages, countries, and nationalities

August 4, 2010

I’ve finally posted my video lesson on the use of articles with names of languages, countries, and nationalities. Thanks to discussion with colleagues and a detailed comment left on my blog by Rachel Spack Koch, I was able to draw some conclusions and compose a set of guidelines to help learners master this topic.

Of course, one of the first comments on my video by a YouTube viewer was actually a tricky question about the use of articles with “(the) Ukraine” and “The Hague”. It goes to show you that just when you think you’ve provided enough guidelines, you’ll soon discover there’s more to explain. I believe that the definite article is no longer required with “Ukraine” because it is an independent country.  It is no longer a republic or region within another country (namely the former Soviet Union).  As for The Hague, I’m less certain. Perhaps someone reading this has more insight. I don’t speak Dutch, so I can only guess that Wikipedia is right about the original name being “the count’s woods”. Would that account for the article in English? (Full article can be retrieved here.)

In any case, practice is in order. Through meaningful use of articles, students will gain more accuracy and more confidence.

  • Partner or Small Group Survey. Answers can be recorded in single words or phrases, but they should be given in complete sentences to practice the use of articles. Questions could include:
  1. In which country were you born?
  2. Name a country you’d like to visit.
  3. Name a country (other than your own) that has a rich history in your opinion.
  4. If you could suddenly have the ability to speak 5 languages fluently, which languages would you like to know?
  5. Were all of your ancestors from the same country? Are there any other nationalities in your family tree?
  • Webquest. Challenge students to gather information on the Internet and report it to the class. Tasks can include:
  1. Find the countries with the ten biggest Spanish-speaking populations.
  2. Find out the official languages of lesser known countries, such as the Marshall Islands, Uganda, and Monaco.
  3. Identify a country that is ethnically diverse. Provide statistics.
  • Online geography quizzes.
  1. has a quiz on Little Known Countries among others.
  2. Lizardpoint has a large set of quizzes that include maps. If done as a class, the quizzes would prompt use of articles in oral speech.
  3. also offers a lengthy set of quizzes. The multiple choice format puts articles in a meaningul written context.
  4. offers a short quiz that nicely pairs cities with nationalities. Another pairs countries with languages.

English Articles: One of the Trickiest Grammar Topics on Earth

May 14, 2010

While doing research for my next video lesson on articles, I stumbled over the use of the definite article with the name of our planet. When do we refer to it as “the Earth” and when do we simply say “Earth”? For that matter, do we always have to capitalize the name or is it optional? Example: Why on earth is this word so problematic? Should “earth” in that example be capitalized?

I think the first guideline is the one we apply to the names of the planets in our solar system. We use the zero article, and we capitalize each name: Mercury, Venus, Mars, etc. Following this guideline, we can say we live on planet Earth. We’re simply stating the name of our planet.

Also, when talking in the context of outer space and science, we tend to capitalize “Earth” and the definite article is usually needed to make a specific reference:

the Earth’s rotation

orbit the Earth

the Earth’s atmosphere

the surface of the Earth/ the Earth’s surface

However, “earth” can also be used as a synonym for “world”, right? As in why on earth did I choose such a tricky topic? = Why in the world did I choose such a tricky topic? In this case and in other set expressions, we tend to use a lowercase “e” and the zero article:

Desserts at that restaurant are heaven on earth.

She’s very down-to-earth.

What on earth made you say that?

Of course, every guideline has its exceptions: He’d follow you to the ends of the earth. The phrase is idiomatic, but it uses the structure “the [noun 1] + of the [noun 2]”.

What are your thoughts? What guidelines would you share with students to help them decide when to use the definite article with “earth” and when to capitalize the name?


Online Shopping: Using Online Ads to Teach Articles

April 23, 2010

The topic of articles has become a beast I’m determined to tame through a video series. The beast sometimes frightens me and forces me to retreat a few steps, but then I regain my determination to move forward. I’ve created my introduction to articles, and I’m just about ready to publish my next video on generic nouns, specifically the use of the with musical instruments, inventions, and animals.

I had assumed that my video on generic nouns would require only a simple and brief explanation: We can use the structure (the + singular noun) to create a generic noun for musical instruments, inventions, and animals. A few examples, such as I play the piano, and it’s a wrap, I thought. Wrong. I began to anticipate the questions viewers would have: What about your first lesson on articles, Jennifer? You said (a + singular noun) is also used to make a general reference. And I hear people use plural nouns with no article at all to make general statements, like dogs make good pets.

So my simple, short video became another lengthy, thorough one, in which I try to explain levels of formality, as in The Black Molly is a sensitive fish (more formal and academic) vs. Mollies are sensitive fish (everyday speech). I also attempted to clarify when there is only one choice of article, for example, I play the piano and I would love to have a piano.

Watching a video, of course, will not lead to complete mastery of the topic. Students need additional practice. What activities could be created to give students practice making choices among articles (definite, indefinite, “zero”) for musical instruments, inventions, and animals? I’d like to suggest online shopping, or browsing, to be more exact.

STEP 1 – Choose a category: musical instruments, inventions (appliances, for example), or animals. Then choose a subcategory: animals >> cats. Tell the class they must do some comparison shopping before making a purchase. To illustrate, we’ll shop for a cat.

STEP 2 – Students can work in pairs at computers, or you can work together as a class if you have a projector for your computer. You’ll need to identify appropriate sites (1-2) in advance. I found these:

Allow time for browsing. Students will need to view enough ads/ postings to compose a text. Their writing will be guided by a set of questions. The questions should prompt different uses of articles. Model:

  1. What kind of cat are you shopping for?
  2. Which cats do you not prefer?
  3. What breed is the most attractive?
  4. If you could buy a cat today, which cat would you buy? (Tell the color, sex, age, and/ or any other information available.)


We’re shopping for a free cat. We don’t want to pay any money. We also think free cats really need a home because the owner doesn’t want them. We prefer not to get a hairless cat. They’re strange.  Persians are cute, but they have too much fur. We think the British Shorthair is the most attractive breed. We found a British Shorthair kitten for free. She’s a blue and silver cat with yellow eyes. She’s in California. (Link)

Step 3 –
Have students share their texts either with the whole class or in small groups. Encourage them to give feedback to one another. Collect their texts at the end for correction.

The Art of Teaching Articles: Ideas for Presentation and Practice

March 10, 2010

How do you like to present the infamous trio a, an, and the to students? Even with upper level students, I feel that a review of the basic principles is always in order. I also find that a concrete task (highly visual and/ or tactile) allows either the illustration or discovery of those so-called rules. Here’s just one idea. Feel free to share your own approach.

STEP 1 – Assemble about half a dozen household objects. Aim for three of a kind, for example, three kitchen utensils and three tools. Let’s say you have a hammer, a screwdriver, a wrench, a vegetable peeler, a grater, and a corkscrew. Hold each item up and ask the class to identify the objects by name. List whole sentences on the board, e.g., It’s a hammer. Then state the rule governing the use of the indefinite article.

RULE 1: We use the indefinite article to define or classify a noun.

STEP 2 – Create two categories which the objects can be divided into. (With upper level students, ask them to come up with the two categories.) For instance, kitchen utensils and tools or things for cooking and things for fixing or building. Point out the use of no article (the zero article) in the titles of each category. State the rule.

RULE 2: We use no article (“the zero article”) with plural count counts when speaking generally.

STEP 3 – Ask students to place all the objects into the appropriate categories. They must name each object as they place it into a category. This can be done as a class so that whole sentences can be written on the board as each placement is made: The hammer is a tool. The grater is a kitchen utensil. Etc. Then state the rule.

RULE 3: We use the definite article after the first mention. “The” makes a noun specific.


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