What is ‘the’ Problem?

Most non-native English speakers face problems in using the correct articles (indefinite and definite) in their write-ups and spoken language. Since articles (a, an, and the) are among the most used five words in English language, errors in this area are easily noticeable to native speakers.

Correct usage of articles is one of the key indicators of language proficiency, and the ease with which native speakers use articles makes them ignore the complexities of the system and often unaware of their importance to English syntax. While non-native English speakers find it slightly easier to use indefinite articles (a, an), they sometimes become very generous in using the definite article (the). Teachers, indeed, admit that the system is very difficult to acquire and there is no easy way to teach it.

Usage of these small words is the most difficult part in English grammar, particularly for learners who do not have article systems in their native language, such as Hindi, Japanese, Chinese, Telugu, Tamil, etc. Moreover, languages that have articles, such as Spanish, French, and Portuguese, do not always use them in the same way as their English equivalents, particularly when talking about things in general.

The usage of two articles (definite and indefinite) and zero article or no article expresses different meanings, and it is not always possible to draw a clear line between them. The usages ‘I went to hospital’ and ‘I went to the hospital’ are slightly different. ‘The’ is not used before nouns such as hospital, church, court, prison, school/college/ university when these places are visited for their primary purpose. However, when these places are visited or used for other reasons ‘the’ is necessary. In certain situations, a definite or an indefinite article could be possible: “A dog is a faithful animal” and “The dog is a faithful animal”. The first sentence is “a typical representative example”, while the second one is “universal and general”.

Correct usage of definite articles is one of the most difficult topics in English grammar. Fortunately, most article mistakes do not matter too much in verbal communications. Even if we leave most articles out of a sentence, it can be usually understood. For e.g.: Please can you lend me the book by end of month.

However, it is better to use articles correctly, if possible, as these words have an immense effect on our expression and speech styles. Also, proficiency in these one-syllable words will facilitate greater accuracy for non-native English speakers.