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scifista42

English help: Appropriate usage of "the", "a/an", and nothing

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Well, I apologize for such a kind of a Doomworld thread. Of course I attended English lessons at school and all. However I've always been unsure in this problematique, and perhaps I could get a help from native speakers. I ask here, because Doomworld is the main forum where I'm registered and active.

I actually ask because of forum post writing.

While writing on the forum, I've noticed that I have the tendency to use "the" very often. I've realized that my texts might be harder to follow because of it. But if I didn't use "the", I felt like that my words are losing the clear context, that it might get less obvious how do I mean my words, and that such an English often doesn't sound right.

What I know is that I use "the" before a noun which is definite, specified, particular, and "a/an" before a noun that is indefinite, general, not particular. But I'm never sure how often should I use the "the" and where it is better to use - (nothing).

A certain English textbook had overwhelmed me with a bunch of enumerations of situations, rules, and exceptions from the rules, and I wasn't able to comprehend it and make it into a clear, simplified set of rules in my mind for usage in practice.

But people whose native language is English and who have a sense for the language, must have a clue about intuitive, clear usage of "the", "a/an", nothing. Can you somehow explain it to a non-English speaker in an easily comprehensible way, which can be used at any situation? I'd be glad for such a help. :)


I have underlined all "the" and "a/an" in the text of my post, which I've used as I felt they should be used. Feel free to correct me. I've already said it and I fully admit, I suck at this part of English.

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I don't think it's problematic, it's just you gotta use those words. That's all I think.

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The rule is a pretty simple one - if the word after "a" starts with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u), you use "an" instead. It gets a bit weird when you're talking about individual letters though, as I think you use "an" for when the way you pronounce the letter starts with a vowel sound (as in "m" is pronounced "em", so you'd say: "mask" starts with an "m" and ends in "k").

Awkward, but that's an excuse most native English speakers don't learn second languages past what is mandatory at school - our own language is difficult enough to know all of the rules to!


EDIT: Just seen you're also querying the use of "the" - easiest way to decide whether it's "a/an" or "the" in a sentence is whether you're talking about a singular thing or a specific thing. If it's singular, use "a/an" an if it's specific, use "the". In your post, you shouldn't be saying "get a help", but "get help". I can't think of a good way to explain the distinction there, but basically if what you're getting is itself a verb (or "doing" word), then you'd not use "a/an" or "the".

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That is clear to me, they are used before either definite or indefinite substantives. I'd rather get an explanation of the difference between "the" and "-", where and how often should I use (or not use) articles before substantives, that is not clear to me at all.

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See my edit above for an example of where not to use "a/an" or "the" in a sentence. I have to admit, the problem with explaining a language I know intuitively is that I never actually learnt the rules specifically and therefore never really think about them unless I see or hear a mistake.

Probably easiest to learn from observation with "the" rather than think explicitly about it. Your English always seems fine to me normally.

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Words beginning with vowels warrant an. Such as an apple, an orange, an Ewok, an igloo, an umbrella. Words beginning with consonants warrant an 'a.' A cat, a dog, a bird, a furnace and such.

The is used when there is only one. The bird means there's only one bird. A bird means that you mean one bird out of many birds or an unknown number of birds. Look at the bird in the sky. Not knowing if there are any birds in the sky, look up, do you see a bird?

We are here at THE Doomworld forum, there is only one forum, but it is still A forum, because there are several forums in the world. The game of DOOM is a game. There are several games in the world, but there is only one Doom.

Your use of THE forum is correct, because there is only one forum here. The tendency is correct, because you are referring to one tendency. The word 'the' needs a 'word' between the 'the.' The language is correct, because we know what language you are referring to.

Every other reference is correct with a, an and the.

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geo said:

The tendency is correct, because you are referring to one tendency.

See, normally I'd say "have/having/had/has a tendency" rather than "the", just because it feels a bit more natural to me. I would agree that using "the" in this instance isn't wrong, though.

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geo said:

Words beginning with vowels warrant an. Such as an apple, an orange, an Ewok, an igloo, an umbrella. Words beginning with consonants warrant an 'a.' A cat, a dog, a bird, a furnace and such.

A university. An X-ray.

The word needs to start with a spoken vowel, not just a spelled one, to start with "an".

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Thanks, all. Once again, I don't really think I need an explanation of the difference between "a/an" and "the", but instead of the difference between usage of these articles in comparison to using nothing. In this regard, I'm still not satisfied with the replies I've got, but I'm glad for getting it written clearer and being assured about correctness, so I thank you, Geo and Phobus.

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This is why I love English, you can have sentences like:
James, where John had had "had", had had "had had"; "had had" had had a better effect on the teacher. As for "a/an" I'd like to bring up some words like hour which although they start with a consonant begin with a vowel's sound and therefore have "an" put before them.

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Cacatou said:

This is why I love English, you can have sentences like:
James, where John had had "had", had had "had had"; "had had" had had a better effect on the teacher.

Are you serious that the sentence is a valid sentence with a correct grammar?

Of course that the meaning is obscured on purpose, I get that this is a wordplay. But the grammar seems weird. Is it really correct grammar-wise?

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In a less convoluted sentence, it'd read:
John used "had", but James' use of "had had" in its place had had a better effect on the teacher.

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Cacatou said:

This is why I love English, you can have sentences like:
John fucked those fuckers for fucking other fucking fuckers, simply because the fucking fuckers had fucked fucking fucker number one.


:P

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Phobus said:

In a less convoluted sentence, it'd read:
John used "had", but James' use of "had had" in its place had had a better effect on the teacher.

Cool, I only comprehended it after trying to analyse this simplified sentence for about a minute (or more). ;p

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scifista42 said:

the difference between usage of these articles in comparison to using nothing.

I might be able to help. This is an oversimplification - but usually no article is used if it's something you're neither specifying or quantifying. So if you're neither referring to a specific ONE nor a specific NUMBER of things, you'd use no article at all.

Joe had the lunch special.
Joe had a sandwich.
Joe had lunch.

It's also common to remove the article if it's non-specific and plural. If you'd refer to a single thing with "a", then you remove it for the plural.

I'm getting a headache.
I've been getting headaches.

You'll notice, even with numeric quantifiers themselves, there's a difference between specific and non-specific.

I have a question.
I have questions.
I have a couple of questions.
I have some questions.
I have a lot of questions.
I have many questions.

That covers a lot of it, I think.

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There is a rule I have never encountered in any manual, textbook, but I heard this rule on a conference. Not sure if it helps Czech people, but for Poles works surprisingly well.

Note that Polish does not use any articles, ever.

Indifinite articles (English: a/an in singular, [nothing] in plural) are used in stories when a subject is used for the first time. Polish equivalent is introducing the subject as the final word of a sentence or as late as possible.

A long time ago, a child was born to a queen and king and she was called Snow White.

Dawno temu w rodzinie króla i królowej urodziło się dziecko przezwane Królewną Śnieżką ("dziecko" (child) and "K.S." (Snow White) could appear earlier in the sentence, but it just wouldn't sound correctly and logically in Polish).

Definite articles (English: the in singular and plural) are used for subjects already introduced before. Polish tends to put those in the beginning of a sentence or as early as possible.

When the queen died, the king married again.

Gdy królowa umarła, król ożenił się ponownie Again, "królowa" (queen) and "król" (king) could appear later in the sentence, but it would just sound bad.

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vdgg said:

Definite articles (English: the in singular and plural) are used for subjects already introduced before.

It's worth noting that "the" can precede nouns central to the topic, without having to mention them previously. The following are perfectly good conversation starters:

How is the baby?
What did the doctor say?
Did you catch the game last night?

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But even then the nouns are already understood to have some specific meaning. The game refers to some particular game and this is understood by both parties involved.

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That's obvious. I was pointing out that they don't necessarily have to be brought up in previous conversation. That said, English is very context-heavy and has very few categorical rules.

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I think your question's been answered, I just wanted to say that I'd never have guessed that English wasn't your first language, so don't feel like you're doing too badly. Most English speakers don't speak or write great English anyhow! :p

And like Phobus pointed out, there are lots of "technically correct" English sentences that are hard to parse and understand. One of the more famous ones on the Internet is "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." Here's a fun list on Wikipedia.

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Maes said:

What about "an hero"?

That abominable expression should become extinct.

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Trolling use aside, it is actually correct grammar, as some British dialects omit the 'h' sound entirely. "A hero" is obviously much more common of course.

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plums said:

Trolling use aside, it is actually correct grammar, as some British dialects omit the 'h' sound entirely. "A hero" is obviously much more common of course.

I've got a horrific Cockney accent that mangles most words, but would still use "a" instead of "an" for 'eero (as I'd pronounce it). Although interestingly, for a word like "harlot" or "harridan" (me thinking of "h" words seems to reveal a distaste for women...), where I'd also omit the "h", I probably would use "an"... If I didn't always prefix those words with "fackin'", anyway.

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