Why Non-native English Speakers Have Trouble with ‘The’, ‘A’ and ‘An’.

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Why Non-native English Speakers Have Trouble with ‘The’, ‘A’ and ‘An’.


articlesThis blog article is about articles, grammatically speaking. It is an analysis of that little word preceding ‘analysis’, ‘an’, and I am certain it is indefinite. The English article system presents many problems for non-native speakers of English, particularly when they do not have the equivalent structure in their first language. Learning their proper use is considered to be one of the most complicated aspects of the English language.
For example, as a native speaker, I instinctively knew to use ‘an’ rather than ‘a’, in the second sentence because ‘analysis’ begins with a vowel sound. This is done in speech to avoid the glottal stop, the momentary pause that would be necessary to make the two words distinct. I did not use “the” because this is not the final word on the matter, and we are not so pretentious. This native use of the English article system was dubbed a “psychomechanism” by J. Hewson in his 1972 work “Article and Noun in English”, as the article is often used correctly, but unconsciously. It is critical to the competent translation and interpretation of other languages into and from English that this mechanism graduate to a conscious understanding.
The definite and indefinite articles are found in many languages of the Indo-European family, though their usage varies widely. In German, French and Spanish, for example, articles are used differently based on number, gender and case of the noun. Icelandic has thirteen definite articles, all of which are suffixes, and no indefinite articles. Arabic has two definite article as prefixes. Italian, along with French and Kurdish have partitive articles, used to refer to mass nouns. While many of the major languages have no articles at all, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Russian, the majority of Slavic and Baltic languages, they all get by with the articles formally absent from their grammars.
The incorrect use of articles will obviously change the intended meaning of sentence entirely. Writing requires precision, the sentence “The feverish patient has difficulty sleeping” refers to an individual, whereas “a feverish patient has difficulty sleeping” implies that anyone with a fever suffers insomnia.
Non-native English writers commonly either omit or overuse articles. Articles are not always necessary. Articles are generally not used when referring to an entire category, such as education, music, etc. That is “Music enhances learning” instead of “The music enhances learning.” On the other hand, if referring to a specific music experience, then “the” is used. For example, “The music of Mozart had better learning-enhancing effects than the music of Bach.” Another example of a category is ‘literature’, which can be either general or specific. When referring to literature in general, it is correct to write “Literature is a worthwhile subject to take in college”, whereas when referring to a specific body of literature, the following is correct: “We reviewed the literature in this field from 2000 – 2014.” The questions to ask yourself are, does the identity of this noun require clarification? Will specifying the noun using an article make the noun too specific?
As is always the case in English, for every rule there is at least one exception, which makes it difficult to simply follow a set of rules for correctly using articles. A native English-speaker will know when to use which article, and equally important, in which cases the general rules do not apply.

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