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Articles in European languages

An article is a word that combines with a noun to indicate the type of reference being made by the noun, and may also specify the volume or numerical scope of that reference. The articles in the English language are the and a (the latter with variant form an). An article is sometimes called a noun marker, although this is generally considered to be an archaic term.

Articles are traditionally considered to form a separate part of speech. Linguists place them in the class of determiner.

Articles can have various functions:
  • A definite article (English the) is used before singular and plural nouns that refer to a particular member of a group.
:The cat is on the red mat.
  • An indefinite article (English a, an) is used before singular nouns that refer to any member of a group.
:A cat is a mammal.
  • A partitive article indicates an indefinite quantity of a mass noun; there is no partitive article in English, though the quantifiers some or any often have that function.
:French: Voulez-vous 'du café ? ("Would you like some' coffee?" or "Do you want coffee?")
  • A zero article is the absence of an article (e.g. English indefinite plural), used in some languages in contrast with the presence of one.
:Cats love fish.
Linguists interested in X-bar theory causally link zero articles to nouns lacking a determiner.

Logic of definite articles

In English, a definite article is mostly used to refer to an object or person that has been previously introduced. For example:

At last they came to a piece of rising ground, from which they plainly distinguished, sleeping on a distant mountain, a mammoth bear.... Then they requested the eldest to try and slip the belt over the bear's head.
:— Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, appendix D

In this example, a bear becomes the bear because a "mammoth bear" had been previously introduced into the narrative, and no other bear was involved in the story. Only previously introduced subjects, and unique subjects, where the speaker can assume that the audience is aware of the identity of the referent (The government has increased tax) typically take definite articles in English.

By contrast, the indefinite article is used in situations where a new subject is being introduced, and the speaker assumes that the hearer is not yet familiar with the subject:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
:— A traditional nursery rhyme

Reflecting its historical derivation from the number word one, the English indefinite article can only be used with singular count nouns. For mass nouns, or for plurals, adjectives or adjective phrases like some or a few substitute for it, or it is omitted. In English, pronouns, nouns already having another non-number determiner, and proper nouns usually do not use articles. Otherwise in English, unlike many other languages, singular count nouns take an article; either a, an, or the. Also in English word order, articles precede any adjectives that modify the applicable noun.

In French, the masculine definite article le (meaning the) is contracted with a following word if that word begins with a vowel sound. When the French words de and le are to be used sequentially (meaning of the), the word du is used instead, in addition to the above mentioned use of du as a partitive article.

In various languages other than English, the form of the article may vary according to the grammatical gender, number or case of the noun it combines with. (In some languages the article may be the only indicator of the case, e.g.Der Hut des Napoleon, Napoleon's hat.) Many languages do not use articles at all, and may use other ways of indicating old vs. new information, such as topic-comment constructions.


The word the is the only definite article in the English language, and the most frequently used word in English.

The article "the" is used with singular and plural, and countable and uncountable nouns when both the speaker and listener would know the thing or idea already. The article the is often used as the very first part of a noun phrase in English. For example:

The end of time begins next Tuesday, at a quarter past four, just after fish and chips.

Here, "the end of time" is a noun phrase. The use of the signals that the reference is to a specific and unique instance of the concept (such as person, object, or idea) expressed in the noun phrase. Here, the implication is that there may be but are not multiple 'ends of time'; which 'end of time' it is that is being referred to is not ambiguous, because time can (supposedly) only end once.

The time is 3:29 p.m.

There are many times, but the meaning here is the time now, of which (at the moment the sentence was produced) there is only one.

In normative spoken English, it takes two forms, the vowel being a schwa before a word starting with a consonant, and otherwise an sound.


Linguists believe that the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages (i.e. the Proto-Indo-European language) did not have a definite article. Most of the languages in this family do not have definite or indefinite articles; there is no article in Latin, Sanskrit, Persian, nor in some modern Indo-European languages, especially in Slavic languages — Russian, Polish and Czech, etc. (the only Slavic languages that have articles are Bulgarian and Macedonian), nor in the Baltic languages—-Latvian, Lithuanian and Latgalian. Classical Greek has a definite article, but Homeric Greek did not. In the etymologies of these and many other languages, the definite article arose from a demonstrative pronoun or adjective changing its usage; compare the fate of the Latin demonstrative "ille" (meaning "that") in the Romance languages, becoming French le, la, l’, and les, Spanish el, la, lo, los, and las, Italian il, la, lo, l’, i, gli, and le, and Portuguese o, os, a, and as.

In some languages, such as Scandinavian, Bulgarian, Macedonian (Macedonian has three defined articles) or Romanian, the definite article is not always a separate word but is sometimes attached to the end of the noun it governs (i.e. it is postfixed):

Icelandic: hestur, horse; hesturinn, the horse

Norwegian: stol, chair; stolen, the chair

Bulgarian: стол stol, chair; столът stolǎt, the chair (subject); стола stola, the chair (object)

Romanian: drum, road; drumul, the road

Macedonian: столот (stolot) the chair, столов (stolov) this chair, столон (stolon) that chair,

The and that are common developments from the same Old English system. Old English had a definite article se, in the masculine gender, seo (feminine), and þæt (neuter). In Middle English these had all merged into þe, the ancestor of the Modern English word the.

In Middle English, the (þe) was frequently abbreviated as a þ with a small e above it, similar to the abbreviation for that, which was a þ with a small t above it. During the latter Middle English and Early Modern English periods, the letter Thorn (þ) in its common script, or cursive, form came to resemble a y shape. As such the use of a y with an e above it as an abbreviation became common. This can still be seen in reprints of the 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible in places such as Romans 15:29, or in the Mayflower Compact. Note that the article was never pronounced with a y sound, even when so written. (However the modern, 19th and 20th century pseudo-archaic usage such as "Ye Olde Englishe Tea Shoppe" can be pronounced with a y sound.)

Reduction and omission

In news headlines and informal writing, such as notes or diaries, the definite article and some other particles are often omitted, for example, "Must pick up prescription at pharmacy today."

In some Northern England dialects of English, the is pronounced (with a dental t) or as a glottal stop, usually written in eye dialect as ; in some dialects it reduces to nothing. This is known as definite article reduction; see that article for further details.

In dialects that do not have (voiced dental fricative), the is pronounced with a voiced dental plosive, as in or ).

Geographic uses

In English most cities and countries never take the definite article, but there are many that do. It is commonly used with many country names that derive from names of island groups (the Philippinesmarker), mountain ranges (the Lebanon), deserts (the Sudanmarker), seas, rivers and geographic regions (the Middle East). Such use is declining, but for some countries it remains common. Since the independence of Ukrainemarker (or the Ukraine), most style guides have advised dropping the article, in part because the Ukrainian Government was concerned about a similar issue involving prepositions. Another example is Argentinamarker, which is now more usual than 'the Argentine', which is old fashioned, although others continue, such as The Bronxmarker and The Haguemarker.

The definite article is always used for countries whose names are descriptions of the form of the state rather than being purely geographical; for example, the United Statesmarker, the Soviet Unionmarker, and the Czech Republicmarker.

The U.S.marker Department of Statemarker [7801] and CIA World Factbook [7802] show the definite article with only two countries: The Bahamasmarker and The Gambiamarker.

Similarly, in other languages some geographic names take the article while others do not:die Schweiz, Switzerland, in German; les Pays-Bas, the Netherlands or Low Countries, in French.


According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, "the" is pronounced with a schwa (as in "uh") before words beginning with consonants (e.g. b, c, d, f), and usually with a different vowel sound (as "y" in "easy") before words beginning with vowels and in cases of proper nouns or emphasis.

See also


  1. Articles, Determiners and Quantifiers
  2. The Use and Non-Use of Articles
  3. [1] Master, Peter (1997) "The English Article System: acquisition, function, and pedagogy" in: System, Volume 25, Issue 2, pp. 215–232
  4. Greenbaum, Sidney (1996) The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-861250-8
  5. Disterheft, Dorothy (2004) Advanced Grammar. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice-Hall ISBN 0-13-048820-8
  6. Swan, Michael How English Works, p. 25
  7. Ukraine or "the Ukraine"? by Andrew Gregorovich

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