Articles_ESL - Article Usage The Writing Center At...

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Revised 05/02, Page 1 Article Usage The Writing Center At Rensselaer 4508 Sage Lab 518/276-8983 [email protected] Developed by: John Kohl Susan Katz Introduction The articles “a,” “an,” and “the” are difficult for many non-native speakers of English to learn to use properly. Some of the rules that govern article usage are very subtle; only years of experience with the language will enable you to understand and apply these rules. However, Table 3 will help you eliminate many errors in article usage from your writing. In order to use Table 3 , however, you have to understand two concepts: countability and definiteness . These concepts are explained in detail below. The last part of this handout, beginning on page 7, discusses article usage with proper nouns as well as the difference between “a” and “an.” At the very end of the handout is an exercise that you can do to test your understanding.
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Revised 05/02, Page 2 Countability Countable nouns refer to people, places, or things that can be counted (one dollar/two dollars, one house/two houses). They can always be made plural—usually by adding - s or some other variation of the plural ending (students, countries, children). A few words are the same in both the singular and plural forms (deer, sheep). Uncountable nouns often refer to food, beverages, substances, or abstractions (meat, tea, steel, information); some uncountable nouns (but not the abstract ones) can be made countable by adding a count frame in front of them (two gallons of milk, six blocks of ice, a bar of soap, a bunch of celery). Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut distinction between countable and uncountable nouns. Some nouns can be both countable and uncountable even without adding count frames. For example, as an uncountable noun, “experience” refers to abstract knowledge or skill that can be gained by observing or participating in events. As a singular or plural countable noun (“experience/experiences”), it refers to a particular instance (or instances) of participation in events. Similarly, the uncountable noun “glass” is a substance made from silicates; “a glass” (singular) is something you drink out of; and “glasses” (plural) are frames containing lenses that correct imperfect vision. There are other exceptions to the countable/uncountable distinction as well. Moreover, a noun that is countable in your native language may be uncountable in English, and vice-versa. For example, “soap” is countable in Spanish but uncountable in English. However, as long as you are aware of these differences, they probably won't cause you much difficulty. In the Oxford dictionary, nouns are countable unless they are designated by the letter [u]. If a noun can be either countable or uncountable (with different definitions, as in the examples given above), then the uncountable definitions are preceded by [u], and the countable definitions are preceded by [c], as in the following example.
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Articles_ESL - Article Usage The Writing Center At...

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