What word appears most often in English?
It's "the," also known as the definite article.
Its partner, the indefinitearticle "a", is also among the top 10 most frequent words in English.
According to Professor Elka Todeva of the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont, "a" and "the" are also some of the most difficult words for learners to figure out how to use without some assistance.
"A," "an" and "the" are called articles. Why are these small words so hard to learn? More than 200 languages do not have articles. Other languages have articles but use them differently than English does. As a result, figuring out the logic of English articles can be challenging.
Professor Todeva says English article usage falls into certain patterns. A basic understanding of common patterns can make learning articles easier.
Fairy tales capture one such powerful pattern, which Elka Todeva calls the a/the switch. The a/the switchoccurs between the first and second mention. It is a shift from new to already familiar information.
Listen for the articles as she reads an example. Pay attention to the way "a" turns into "the" with the second mention of the old man and the old woman.
"Once upon a time, there was an old man and an old woman who lived in a little cottage in a vast open field. The old woman and the old man were very hungry, so the old woman decided to bake a gingerbread man."
Before we explore this pattern and fairy tales further, let us look at some basic rules for article usage.
"A" and "an" are indefinite articles used before non-specific members of a group or category of nouns. The article "a" appears before singular nouns starting with a consonant sound. For example, "I ate abanana." The article "an" comes before singular nouns beginning with a vowel sound. For example, "Give me anapple."
"The" is called a definitearticle. "The" appears before nouns which are specific members of a category as in, "I want to see themovie George Clooney just made." Also use "the" with previously mentioned nouns. For example, "We went to amovie last night. Themovie was called Spy." Use "the" with unique things like the sun, the moon, the front door, and the tallest man in the world.
The zero article
In some situations, there is no article before a noun. Grammarians call this the "zero article." The zero article appears before proper nouns, names like Picassoand John Lennon. It also goes with names of places and institutions which consist of a proper name and another noun, as in Michigan State University.
There is also no article before the names of days, months, seasons and holidays. There is no article before geographical names like Europe, Italy, Tokyo, and Lake Superior.
The "zero article" applies to names of languages and nationalities, as with Chineseor English. For example, "Spanish is spoken in Spain." But if you are describing the people of that country, use the definite article. "The Spanish are known for being friendly."
The zero article also goes with names of sports and academic subjects.
The "a/the switch"
Professor Todeva is both a learner and teacher of English. She says the human brain loves patterns and finding logic behind things. She encourages teachers and learners to explore grammatical patterns in fun, engaging ways. She calls this "grammaring." Let's look at some common patterns in article usage.
Professor Todeva takes us back to fairy tales, or traditional stories, to demonstrate how the switch from "a" to "the" works.
"This particular pattern is very beautifully illustrated in most English fairy tales and in many jokes as well. Most fairy tales in English start with 'Once upon a time' … there is suspense, there is sweet anticipation, we are not sure what the story is about yet; we expect something exciting and something new, thus the use of the indefinite article at the beginning of most fairy tales as in the following piece from The Gingerbread Man:
"Once upon a time, there was an old man and an old woman who lived in a little cottage - first mention - in a vast open field."
Here, the story teller uses the indefinite articles because the characters are new to the listener or reader. When the information becomes familiar, the story teller uses the definite article, "the."
"Theold woman and theold man were very hungry, so theold woman decided to bake agingerbread man."
You might notice the "a/the switch" in most jokes. Here is an example.
"Aman walks into adoctor's office. He has acucumber up his nose, acarrot in his left ear and abanana in his right ear.
"What's wrong with me?" he asks thedoctor (because it's already implied).
And thedoctor says, "You're not eating properly."
Notice how the joke sets the stage with new information first. It starts with "a" before switching to "the."
Another important pattern involves general statements. General statements refer to all, or many members of a group. For example, "Politicians only care about money." You will often see general statements on bumper stickers. These are small labels on the back of cars that express the owner's feelings or opinions.
You might see bumper stickers that say, "Well-behaved women rarely make history" or "Teachers touch the future." Notice that general statements use the zero article.
Here's another general statement that you will probably agree with: "Articles are challenging for English learners." Look for a future Everyday Grammar with more tips for using articles.
Take Professor Todeva's advice and let your brain pay attention to some of the patterns that we just explored. Happy learning and "grammaring" with the English language!
For VOA Learning English Everyday Grammar,
I'm Jonathan Evans.
And I'm Jill Robbins.
Words in This Story
definite article - gramm. the word the used in English to refer to a specific person or thing
indefinite article - gramm. the word a or an used in English to refer to a person or thing that is not identified or specified
article - gramm. a word (such as a, an, or the) that is used with a noun to show whether or not the noun refers to a specific person or thing
switch - v. a change from one thing to another
gingerbread man– n.a cookie flavored with ginger and honey or molasses, usually in the shape of a human