Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Those Darn Articles, Part 1: Noun Confusion

In a previous post of WORDS ON THE LINE, I explained why the definite article (the) and the indefinite article (a, an) are so difficult for people learning English, especially those who do not have articles in their mother tongue. To help those people, I will write an occasional post on some tricky uses as they pop up in my students' writing, beginning with this post.

Here is the opening of an email written by an electrical engineer employed by a major municipality:

Our inspector had concern about the quality of a work by contractor.

In that 12-word sentence, three article errors appear, one of addition and two of omission:

  1. Since concern is a noun and not an adjective, the indefinite article is necessary. Write either Our inspector had a concern (concern is a noun) or Our inspector was concerned (concerned is an adjective, so the article is unnecessary).
  2. Quality of work is a term of art (meaning it's just the way businesspeople use it, so a is unnecessary. When we use the noun work in a general sense (e.g., work is important), the article is also unnecessary. However, the work could be specific in the mind of the writer and reader, so quality of the work would also sound right. But quality of a work does not sound natural.
  3. By contractor needs an article for the same reason that concern does. If only one contractor is in question for the writer and reader, then the contractor would sound fine; if one contractor is being singled out among many and is not known to the reader, the writer should begin with a contractor and shift to the contractor when identified. 
More tricky instances of the definite and indefinite article will appear occasionally, so be on the lookout.