Monday, August 16, 2010

An ESL Guide, Part 3: Articles

Articles (a, an, and the) are especially tricky for nonnative speakers who do not have the article in their first language, such as Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Polish. It would be easy for them to memorize the many rules for the definite article (the) and the indefinite article (a, an), but the number of exceptions exceed the rules themselves. For instance:
  • We don’t usually use the with proper nouns like Yankee Stadium, but we do use the if those proper nouns are sports teams, as in the Yankees.
  • We avoid the to refer to proper nouns of universities like New York University, but we do say the if the first word is university, as in the University of Michigan.
  • We won’t use the for proper nouns like Penn Station or Grand Central Station, but we feel equally comfortable saying, “I’ll meet you at the 59th Street Station” and “I’ll meet you at 59th Street Station.”
  • We say the United States and the USA; however, we say the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and either the MTA or just MTA.
  • People from England and Australia feel it’s fine to say, I’m going to university, or I’m going to hospital, but those expressions sound strange to Americans, who want the to precede university and hospital.
All of this may sound funny to native English speakers, but it is linguistic torture for nonnative speakers trying to write in a natural English (or American) style. Therefore, after studying the rules for the article, ESL learners need to read a lot in English, especially current writing, to get the nuances of the article. They should also ask their native speaking coworkers to critique their use of the article. These techniques will help them see improvement quickly.

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