Grammar Articles

Nearly every single task that is submitted for editing, be it a task 1 or task 2, has some error with article usage.  This article will present some of the problems with articles and provide solutions which will help to address a large number of article errors.

There are many problems that arise as a result of incorrect article usage and it is has been said that English articles are one of the key performance indicators of native level competency. Many non-native speakers and writers of English find the usage of articles difficult and it is particularly problematic with those undertaking the IELTS test.  Often article usage does not adversely impact upon the communication process, however, it does highlight to the examiner that there is a lack of accuracy and precision.  There are also rare instances when article usage will have a significant impact upon the meaning.  Essentially every noun requires a decision about article use. If the decision is wrong the meaning of the noun might be incorrect and the text often becomes very awkward to read.
It is possible to address a large percentage of the article usage errors using some basic rules.

We use a or an:

  • When we don’t know or it isn’t important which one. Example: a day an hour.
  • With jobs. Example: a designer, an engineer.
  • To talk about a person or thing for the first time. Example: a new person, a children’s charity.

However, that highlights one of the many problems that learners are confronted with.  The choice of either a or an.  Remember the choice of which one to use does not depend on spelling but on the pronunciation. Therefore, we use ‘an’ before a vowel sound even if the first letter is a consonant.  Example: an hour. Conversely, we use ‘a’ before a consonant sound even if the first letter is vowel. Example: a university.

We use the:

  • To talk about the same person or thing for the second/third/fourth, etc. time in an essay. Example: It is often said that a person should recycle their own waste.  The person should make sure they put recyclables in the correct waste receptacle.  He does work for a charity.  The charity is located near his home.
  • When there is only one (or only one in the particular place). Example: The Internet is used across the globe and has brought the population of the world closer than ever before.
  • With countries that are groups of islands or states. Example: He is from the USA but he currently lives in the UK and intends to spend his next holiday in the UAE.
  • With superlatives. Example: The largest waterfall in the forest was the most amazing site I have ever seen.

We don’t use an article:

  • For most towns, cities, countries and continents. Example: He is from Dublin and is traveling to Egypt.
  • To talk about people or things in general. Example: You do not have to be at school or university to use Facebook and children can also be members of the online society.
  • For some public places when we talk about what they are used for in general. Example: A third of people at university spend hours on the Internet and you don’t have to have been to school to learn how to access the World Wide Web.

Since errors in article use rarely impede communication many learners might feel that the problems do not justify the effort required to learn correct usage patterns.  However, for IELTS writing where a high level of accuracy is required it is a significant issue.  Learning the basic rules presented and attempting a number of practise exercises will help you to address a large percentage of your article usage problems.  However, there are a number of exceptions which will be presented in forthcoming blog posts.

Written by Alain Montocchio

Please see my grammar page for more help with grammar for IELTS preparation

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