Three most common errors: the article


The definite article, “the” is normally used when one specific case of a noun is meant: “The dinosaur I saw had longer eyelashes than yours.” But it can also signify an iconic or representative abstraction: “To the researcher, such events can be very revealing. To the random vacationer, they are simply irritating.” (No specific researcher or vacationer is referred to here, only researchers and vacationers in general.)

Normally, singular nouns require an article, while plural nouns take no article if indefinite, “people are funny”, or a definite article if a specific group of the noun is meant, “the people who planned the ice-cream barrage are in this room”. There are some general rules, but also many exceptions which simply have to be learnt, and the Brits and Americans don’t agree on everything. Specific place names may or may not require an article and this can only be learnt from experience or by looking them up; there is no consistent rule. It is The San Joaquin Valley, The Rift Valley and The Holme Valley, but Death Valley, Grass Valley, and Apple Valley never take an article.

This aspect of English can be very confusing to foreigners, as dictionaries and other reference resources rarely explain whether a noun needs an article or not. While there is no irrefragible rule, there are some guidelines. With some nouns, particularly place names and proper nouns, the only way to be certain is to examine usages.

Exceptions to the rule requiring articles for singular Nouns in English

Names of countries have no articles (if singular)

  • France borders Switzerland.

  • The BBC is not permitted in Zimbabwe.

  • But: (plural country names) I’m visiting the United States next week after touring the Netherlands and the British Isles.

  • Exceptions: I have never been to the Ukraine, the Gambia, nor the United Kingdom (or the UK).

There is no article used with with the names of languages.

  • Swedish was not much use in Argentina.

  • English has a vast vocabulary.

  • Mahatma Gandhi corresponded in Gujarati.

There is no article before the names of meals.

  • Breakfast was revolting.

  • We had lunch with a dispeptic Croat.

  • Dinner lasted until midnight.

There is no article with proper names (if singular).

  • Rupert dropped the eggplant on the Persian carpet.

  • Geoffrey bent his spanner.

  • But: (plural) the Morgans have revolting table manners (plural proper noun).

  • Exceptions: The Fonz, the Cisco Kid, the Scarlet Pimpernel.

There is no article with titles and names:

  • Prince Charles has big ears.

  • President Fillmore is the one nobody remembers.

  • Dr. House insulted the patient.

  • But: the Prince of Wales, the Bishop of Canterbury, and the Dalai Lama walked into a bar.

There is no article with professions and fields of study.

  • Statistics is sometimes useful for proving things that aren’t true.

  • Music should not be studied by the deaf.

  • He wants to work for NASA.

  • He’ll probably end up in food service or law enforcement.

  • Exceptions: He’ll probably end up in the military|the navy|the army.

There is no article with mass (uncountable) nouns:

  • Water is in short supply.

  • Coffee can be used to disrupt a concert.

  • Research is lacking in the field of invertebrate alcoholism

There is no article with singular islands, mountains and lakes.

  • More people know that Loch Ness has a monster than know it is in Scotland.

  • Kauai is mostly coastline.

  • Mount Fuji is the most photographed mountain in the world.

  • Moussorgsky didn’t name it “Pandemonium on Bald Mountain”.

  • But: The elephants traversed the Alps|the Pennines|the Adirondacks (plural).

  • Exceptions: They climbed The Matterhorn. They went boating on The Serpentine. The dragon flew over The Lonely Mountain. The Hebredes is off the West coast of Scotland.

No article is used with most names of towns, streets, stations and airports.

  • Charing Cross station is some distance from Piccadilly|Big Ben|Hyde Park Corner|St. Paul’s Cathedral — but it’s not close to: the Marble Arch|the Embankment|the London Eye|the Serpentine.

  • Can you direct me to Curson Street?

  • She found joy in Sienna.

  • They depart from LAX on the 14th.

No article is used with some destinations:

  • He went to school unwillingly. (He is in school.)

  • She didn’t go to work today. (She is at work.)

  • They never went to college. (She is at college.)

  • He might have gone to prison. (He is in prison.)

  • They never go to church. (They are in church.)

  • It’s too early to go to bed. (He is in bed.)

  • That’s in skid row.

  • They told us we were going to heaven or hell.

  • She had to go to hospital (UK). But: she had to go to the hospital (USA).

Some nouns may be used with or without an article, but have very different meanings depending upon whether an article is used.

  • She loves to walk in nature (the natural world). But, it is not the nature of cats to follow the herd (not characteristic of cats)

The article is absent in modes of transport and some expressions. Note significant differences between USA and UK usages.

We went:

  • by car.

  • by train.

  • by air.

  • on foot.

  • on holiday (UK) on vacation (USA).

  • on air (in broadcasting)(UK) But: on the air (USA).