'a/an’ and ‘the’ Should Be Used Properly and Correctly
'a/an’ and ‘the’ Should Be Used Properly and Correctly
  • 경남타임즈(경남대학교)
  • 승인 2021.06.14 12:55
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By Sohn Byung-yong
Professor of the Department of English Education

Have you ever had difficulty in putting ‘a/an’ or ‘the’ in front of some words? When I was an undergraduate student as an English major, one of my difficulties to improve my English writing was how to use the definite and indefinite articles such as a(n) and the. Whenever I submitted my essays, I could see my results which were proofread with red pen. At that time, I understood why my vocabulary, grammar, and writing were wrong. They could have misspelled words, grammatical errors, and illogical organizations. But I couldn’t understand why ‘a/n’ and ‘the’ were marked with a red pen. That meant I used them improperly. Probably some of you may say ”Why you didn’t ask for your professor’s advice?” I wish you to understand that it was 30 years ago. It was not easy to contact with my professor back then compared to now, and I was the kind of student who got nervous visiting the office and asking some questions. I decided to resolve the problems about articles by myself and achieved helpful results. I’d like to tell you how to use articles properly with some examples by explaining basic fundamental points According to the Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary, an article is a determiner. In English, `a' and `an' are called the indefinite articles, and `the' is called the definite article. The indefinite articles indicate nonspecific references, and the definite article indicates specificity of a reference. For example, let’s look at these two sentences, ‘I caught a cold’ and ‘I have the flu.’ Can you recognize the differences? Why is ‘a’ placed in front of cold? Why is ‘the flu’ not ‘a flu’? You can get a hint from the literal meaning of ‘indefinite and nonspecific’ and ‘definite and specific.’ The dictionary definition of cold is ‘a mild viral infection involving the nose and respiratory passages but not the lungs.’ That means a cold cannot be defined specifically. A cold can be diagnosed as a sinus cold, a sore throat, and an illness from fatigue; therefore, the meaning of cold can mean many things. On the other hand, the flu can be defined as an ‘acute febrile highly contagious viral disease.’ It can classified as the seasonal flu, regional flu, and even animal flu because these are specific types of flu. Therefore, we ask, “Did you catch a cold?” or “Did you catch the flu?” I expect you can understand the difference between ‘a/an’ and ‘the.’ Here is another example. What is the proper expression between ‘I’m looking for my job’ and ‘I’m looking for a job’; probably when you are going job hunting? If you say, ‘I’m looking for my job,’ it sounds absurd. ‘My’ is the determiner which expresses ownership, so ‘my job’ means you already have a job. It is unreasonable to try to get a job in which you already engage in. Therefore, ‘I’m looking for a job’ is an appropriate expression. Now, it’s your turn. Look at the following sentences, and find the differences.

<Quiz> Find the differences

① I picked up a book in a classroom.

② I heard that you wrote a book.

③ I have read a book before.

④ I have the book which you’ve already read

Can you see the difference? I believe you can. In the first sentence, both the speaker and listener cannot know exactly what the book is. They don’t know who owns and writes the book. In the second sentence, the speaker does not know what the book is, whereas listener knows. In the third one, the speaker knows the book he or she already read while listener does not. Lastly, both the speaker and listener know what the book is in the last one. Let’s remind ourselves o f the usage of the articles. As an indefinite article, ‘a/an’ indicate nonspecific references; the definite article, ‘the’ indicates specificity of reference. There is one more thing to know. You can use ‘a’ or ‘an’ instead of the number ‘one.’ If you say, “I want to take a day off because I feel sick,” ‘a day’ means ‘one day.’ Meanwhile, if you say, “I want to take the day off because it is my birthday,” ‘the day’ is specified as a concrete date. I hope you can remember that articles cannot be neglectable and to use them properly.

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