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Learning Centre

Editing for Noun-related Errors: Matching Articles with Nouns

Can you find all the errors in the following sentences?

  1. The cows are mammals.
  2. Cat is sleeping on our porch.
  3. Apples came from our neighbor next door.
  4. Joe agreed to meet Hans at Vancouver Art Gallery.

If you can’t find any errors, the following explanations can help.

Nouns that are specific need “the”. You need to learn when a noun is being used in a general or specific way.

 

 

Countable

Uncountable

Specific

The

The

General

Singular

Plural

Ø

a/an

Ø

 

General means that we do not identify a specific object, person, place, or idea.

 

 For example, the following sentence uses the word dogs in a general way:

Dogs can be noisy.

 

In other words, we are talking about any dogs in general, not about specific dogs, so no article is used. Notice that the plural word dogs takes no article at all. General plural and uncountable nouns shouldn't have an article in front. This rule is explained in more detail in the “When to Ignore Plural and Uncountable Nouns” tab.

 

Specific means that we know which specific object, person, place, or idea the speaker/writer is talking about.

The following sentence specifies which dogs the writer is writing about:

The dogs next door are noisy.

Because we know which dogs are being discussed (the ones that are next door), the noun dogs is being used in a specific way.

 

English uses words called determiners to clarify whether something is specific or general. Determiners include words like this, that, my, you, and our. Articles are one kind of determiner, and “the” is the most common determiner that shows a noun is specific.

 

You can find more information and practice with articles in the resources boxes to the right.

1. Grammatical Clues that help you identify nouns that are specific:

 

A) The words “which, that, whose, who, whom” often have the job of specifying a noun. Much like the determiners “this, these, those,” words like “which” and “that” identify which item we are talking about.

  • The pen that you gave me isn’t working. Could you lend me another one?

Because we know which pen the sentence is about, pen is specific, so we put “the” before it.

 

B) Prepositional Phrases that follow a noun, such as “by the window,” or “at 3 p.m. today”, also often help identify a noun that is specific.

  • The chair by the window is the best place in the living room for sun.
  • The meeting at 3 p.m. today is important for students who want to know about student loans.

 

                        C) When only one item fits the description:

 

i) For example, you use "the" if there is only one president of the college or of a country, one sun in our solar system, one kitchen in a house, and for the family car.

the sun                 the president                      the kitchen

In each of these kinds of cases, we use the specific article “the” because the writer and the reader know which specific item is being referred to.

 

ii) Superlatives such as worst, best, fastest, slowest, most wonderful, least able take the specific article “the” because they refer to only one thing. Only one item can be the best; only one item can be the worst, so superlatives clarify that a noun is specific.

The best experience I have had in Vancouver is . . .

I think that the hardest assignment I still have to do is the history paper.

 

iii) Ordinal numbers such as first, second, and third also make a noun specific because they refer to only one item, so they use the article “the” as well: e.g. the fourth page.

 

2. The second mention of a noun:

 

A good way to identify specific nouns is to pay attention to whether a noun has been mentioned before or not. Usually, when we use a common noun for the first time, we treat it as general, but after that, the noun is specific.

 

For example:

James bought some shoes. The shoes are made of black leather.

 

In the first sentence, "shoes" is general. The reader does not know which shoes James bought. However, by the second sentence, the reader knows which shoes we are talking about, the shoes that James bought yesterday, so shoes is now specific and requires the article “the.”

 

Sometimes the first mention of a something is not obvious. Look at this example:

My friend rented a new apartment. It’s nice, but the kitchen is very small.

 

In this example, "kitchen" is specific even though it was not mentioned before. However, if we use a which question (“Which kitchen is it?"), it’s clear that we know which kitchen is being discussed – the kitchen in the new apartment.

 

3. Substituting articles with other specific determiners:

One strategy for checking for and fixing article errors on specific nouns is to substitute other specific determiners for the article “the.” Determiners that specify include possessives (e.g. my, his, John’s) and demonstratives (e.g. this, that, those). You can see how this works in the following examples:

 

He bought shoes on Tuesday. The new shoes are black.

He bought shoes on Tuesday. His new shoes are black.

He bought shoes on Tuesday. These new shoes are black.

 

His” and “These” do the same job as “the” to specify whose shoes we are talking about, so if you are not sure if a noun needs an article, or which article to choose for a noun, sometimes you can simply decide not to use an article and try to use another determiner (like “his” or “these” or “this”) instead. If you can use a specific determiner, you can probably use “the”.

 

You can find more information and practice with articles in the resources boxes to the right.

All singular nouns have articles.

Singular nouns are very important nouns to notice in your writing because they all have articles in front of them. When you edit your writing, look for any singular nouns that do not have articles; each of those nouns must have an article or a determiner.

If a singular noun is general, you must use “a” or “an.”

Look at the following example with the singular noun "course"

Wrong: She is taking course at Douglas College.

Correct: She is taking a course at Douglas College.

 

If a singular noun is specific, it must have the article “the” (or another specific determiner like this or that) in front of it, such as in the following example:

The price of the textbook for this course went up this term.

 

You can find more information and practice with articles in the resources boxes to the right.

Unlike the first two rules (that all “specific” nouns need articles and that all “singular” nouns need articles), all “general” nouns that are plural or uncountable do not take articles. These two concepts are explained briefly below.

 

General plural nouns do not need articles; only specific plural nouns need the article "the”.

 

What is the difference in the way the writer refers to “courses” in the two example below?

She is taking several courses.

The accounting courses that she is taking at Douglas College are transferable to other universities.

In the first example above, we don’t know which courses she is taking, so there is no article; however, as soon as we specify which courses she is taking in the second example, the specific article “the” must be added.

 

General uncountable nouns do not need articles; only specific uncountable nouns need “the”.

Uncountable nouns are materials, concepts, or categories that are not counted in English. Please see the "Useful Links & Resources" on the right for a list of common uncountable nouns in English.

 

What is the difference in the way the writer refers to "water" in the two examples below?

We should drink water as part of a healthy lifestyle.

The water from all the colleges drinking fountains is filtered.

In the first example above, the author is referring to drinking water in general 

In the second example above, the author is referring to a specific water source (around the campus)

 

To learn to use articles correctly, it is important for you to learn to recognize the difference between countable and uncountable nouns because uncountable nouns can easily be confused with singular nouns. 

If you are unsure about the difference between countable and uncountable nouns, you can use an English learners’ dictionary (https://www.ldoceonline.com) to look up any noun that you are not sure about. A tutor can show you how to do this. Instead of using a dictionary, you can also ask a native speaker.

You can find more information and practice with articles in the resources boxes to the right.

The distinction between common and proper nouns is important when you edit for articles because, in most cases, proper nouns do not need articles.

 

Common nouns are nouns that are not formal names, such as girl, school, city, and superhero.

We do not capitalize the first letter of common nouns. Many common nouns need articles.

 

Proper nouns are names of people, places, things, and ideas, such as Mary, Douglas College, Vancouver, and Superman.

The first letter in these names is always capitalized, so proper nouns are easy to identify.

 

In the following example, you can see that city names, street names and people’s names do not usually require articles.

 

Jennifer agreed to meet Mary at Stanley Park in Vancouver.

 

However, sometimes proper nouns must take the article “the,” such as in the following example:

 

Jennifer agreed to meet Mary at the Fraser River Park.

 

Below you will find some of the rules that can help you identify which proper nouns must take the article “the.”

 

Rule #1: If the word of is part of the name, you need to use the.

For example,

we say:

the University of British Columbia,

but we say:

Simon Fraser University.

 

In this example, the preposition “of” helps specify which university we are talking about (of British Columbia).

 

Rule #2: Place names that are plural usually use the.

For example,

we say:

the Philippines

but we say:

Canada.

 

We also say:

the Rocky Mountains

but we say: 

Whistler Mountain. 

 

Rule #3: When a place name includes geographical words like ocean, sea, gulf, peninsula, river and desert, we use the. However, place names with some other geographical words like lake, mountain, bay, hill, island and park do not use an article if they are singular.

For example:

Use the:                                                         No article:

The Pacific Ocean                                            Cultus Lake

The Caspian Sea                                              Grouse Mountain

The Persian Gulf                                              English Bay

The Sinai Peninsula                                         Beacon Hill

The Fraser River                                              Vancouver Island

The Gobi Desert                                              Stanley Park

 

Rule #4: When a place name is the name of a geographical region, we use the.

For example, we say:

the Middle East

the Prairies

the North 

 

Rule #5: Names of organizations often need the.

For example, we say:

the World Health Organization

the Supreme Court

the Vancouver Art Gallery

the New Westminster Public Library

the Coquitlam Chamber of Commerce

the National Hockey League

the Conservative Party

 

You can find more information and practice with articles in the resources boxes to the right.

Now, let's look back at the four sentences at the beginning of the page again. Do you know how to fix them now?

  1. The Cows are mammals.
  2. A cat is sleeping on our porch.
  3. The apples came from our neighbor next door. 
  4. Joe agreed to meet Hans at The Vancouver Art Gallery.

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