Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Those Darn Articles, Part 2: Places

Attending one of my recent writing classes was a Russian woman (let's call her Natalyia), who holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from her native country as well as a master of civil engineering degree and a professional engineering license from the United States. In addition, Natalyia played piano on a concert level in the old country, and a brief conversation would reveal she's a wiz in European history and Russian literature. Calling her brilliant is an understatement, yet she claims that she will never master English articles (the, a, and an) because they do not follow linguistic rules logically and consistently.

But does anyone really think that language is perfectly logical?

While Natalyia's assessment of the article is correct, her self-assessment is not. For those of us born to the English language, the article comes naturally. Native speakers of other languages that have articles (e.g., Spanish) should find learning the English article easier than would Russians, Chinese, Indians, and others whose language does not have the article. True, it may never come as naturally for Natalyia as it does for her American-born nine-year-old daughter, who often corrects her mother's article usage, but mastery will come from regular, focused reading of quality writing and from nudging her English-language native colleagues to review her writing until she makes fewer errors.

Here's a sentence Natalyia wrote in her first assignment during our class:

I arrived in United States from former USSR with my husband.

I pointed out to her that proper nouns like America, Russia, and England do not need the definite article the, but States in United States, the implied Union in USSR, and Kingdom in United Kingdom are common nouns in other contexts; therefore, we state these countries with the definite article (the United States, the USSR, and the United Kingdom). We also say the Himalayas because we assume the mountains, the Nile because of the river, the Arctic because of the ocean, and the Caribbean because of the sea or the islands.

It gets worse. Many Brits are comfortable saying, "I'm from UK," but most Americans would say, "She's from the UK." And why do we say the Bahamas when the origin of the word is questionable?

Poor Natalyia. She's not the problem; English is. To her credit, in her next writing assignment, she wrote this sentence:

The Russian language is more structured than English. Perhaps that's because grammatical rules are stressed more in Russia than in the US.

I'm not sure Natalyia's observation is right, but she got her articles right!