Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Weekly G-Spot 2: THE definite article

Last week the subject was the indefinite article a/an. This week, the author of the View from the Fence thinks that the definite article deserves the attention of the weekly G-Spot.

It is THE most used word in the English language and it is perhaps the most elusive point for many a language learner. In its most basic form, "The" is used before a noun (or noun group) that refers to something that the speaker (writer) and the listener (reader) both have knowledge of; either because it is common knowledge (like "the sun" or "the moon") or because it has already been mentioned.

When 'the' is misused, as it often is by not only Korean learners but learners from the many languages that do not use articles, it can drastically change the meaning of a sentence or confuse the listener. For example:

"I like to read the book" - suggests that in the world, there is only ONE book and I am talking about that one....I assume that you know that book too.

This of course, really makes no sense but it does have meaning. If perhaps, the word 'the' were capitalized along with book (The Book) it might suggest a particular religious text like The Bible or The Koran. But in such a case, the listener and speaker would both have the schemata necessary to understand which book.

Another way that 'the' is used is when we are talking about a countable noun in singular form and we want to refer to the item in a general or 'global' way. For example:

"The computer has change the world." Makes use of two definite articles. The first one refers to all computers or computers in general. The second refers to something that is known to everyone on earth...the world
If you were talking to Luke Skywalker standing on Tatooine, for example, you shouldn't say, "Luke, Look at the moon!" because he would probably reply,
"Which one." since Tatooine has multiple satellites.
You might even have a difficult time saying something like, "Computers have changed the world." because he would probably respond,
"which one?" or "don't you mean the universe?"

A common mistake for Korean students is the use of the definite article in front of the names of places.
"I come from the Daegu" is one that I hear A LOT!
There are situations where 'the' can be used in front of the names of places.
1. When the name of the city is used as an adjective in front of another noun; like in the name of an organization like: The Daegu Metropolitian Opera.
2. In front of the names of groups of islands like The Maldives, The Phillipines, or The Seychelles.

A couple of other special rules:
1. The use of 'the' in front of the names of musical instruments is optional. "I play piano." and "I play the piano" are the same.
2. Do NOT use 'the' between a preposition and any of the following: home, college, hospital, prison, school, university, or church. (but there are exceptions to this as well. Don't you just LOVE the diabolical nature of English?)
3. Do NOT use 'the' with the names of meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner.
4. Use 'the' with superlatives: "VFT is the greatest blog in the world!!"
5. Systems or services use 'the.' The bus, the train, the subway, the electricity. But again, these are things that the listener should 'know' about.

There are SOOOO many rules (and exceptions to those rules) about the use of definite articles and learning them all and trying to apply them in common conversation is an act of futility. Native speaker and those who learn to speak English fluently learn to use the articles without thinking about them.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is 'the' refers to something known to your interlocutor.


Kim said...

Thanks for THE lesson. It was very informative.

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