Tagged: articles

Society and community revisited

ūüė¶ Space exploration does not improve conditions in the society.

Recently in class we were discussing the difference between society and community and it occurred to me that this might be an opportunity to contrast society and the society (see also previous post).

As you may be aware, there are so-called ‘uncontacted peoples‘ living in forests in different parts of the world. These people form communities whose social structures¬†are very different from those found in ‘modern society‘. This is because uncontacted peoples – for whatever reason – are¬†cut off from the rest of society.

In this case,¬†society (uncountable, without¬†the) refers to all of humanity. Meanwhile community (here countable) refers to a group having shared values, interests and lifestyle.¬†Academics sometimes identify uncontacted peoples as ‘primitive societies‘ (plural countable), where each society can be counted as a separate group having unique social characteristics. Note, however, that the countable use of society¬†tends to be restricted to the fields of anthropology, sociology, and other social sciences.

If we wish to talk about¬†society¬†(uncountable, without the) to mean ‘all of humanity’, then our opening sentence should probably read:

ūüôā Space exploration does not improve conditions in society.

flag-of-indonesia A common error made by Indonesian students is to write the society (a particular group) when you really mean society (all of humanity).

For further analysis of society and the society try here.



When is a school not a school?

ūüė¶ I have also been a teacher in one of high schools in Padang.

flag-of-indonesia¬†This is a common mistake¬†made by Indonesians desperate to translate ‘salah satu’ or maybe ‘sebuah’.

In English, when we want to communicate ‘one of many’, we use the indefinite article ‘a/an’:

ūüôā I have also been a teacher at a high school in Padang.

This is sometimes called ‘generic’ reference. The school in the example is not a particular school – we don’t yet know the name of the school, its address, etc. So far we’re just imagining a typical school. The image of the school in the writer’s mind will not be exactly the same as the image of the school in the reader’s mind, and that doesn’t matter.

I might¬†use¬†‘one of’ if I’m introducing¬†more specific information about ‘a’ school. For example:

ūüôā There are many schools in Padang. One of them is close to my house.
(information about the location of the school)

ūüôā Only one of the schools in Padang offers an international curriculum.
(information about the curriculum of the school)

ūüôā I studied at one of the best schools in Padang.
(information about the quality of the school)

Notice also that ‘one of’ is followed by certain words, in particular:

  • the / them (pronouns)
  • these / those (demonstratives)
  • my/his/their (possessives)
  • superlative adjectives

For more examples, click here.

As a general rule – if you’re talking generally (generically!), use ‘a/an’ for countable nouns. For uncountable nouns use ‘some’.


The smartest use of articles

Before we get into the grammatical meaning of articles, I would just like to point out that in British English ‘smart’¬†is more commonly used to mean ‘elegantly dressed’. In American English it usually means ‘intelligent’, hence the term ‘smartphone’, although a lot of smartphones these days also look ‘smart’!

‘Article’ is also used in connection with clothing. We can talk about an ‘article of clothing’ just as we can talk about an ‘item of clothing’. And so ‘article’ is sometimes a useful word for classifying clothes.

An ‘article’ can also be a piece of writing in a magazine or newspaper!

But let’s get back to ‘articles’ and grammar! (a[n], the, zero)

I was browsing through DIGG this morning and saw an interesting headline Рinteresting because it demonstrates two important functions of articles.


This Isn’t a Smart Remote

If we say “a smart remote”, we’re not talking about one¬†remote in particular. We’re talking in this case about a hypothetical remote – one of many.

This use of the indefinite article ‘a’ to talk about¬†one of many is extremely common in English, but is often neglected by students.

Indonesian students either omit the article completely, or use a strategy¬†from their first language to communicate¬†one of many, usually translating directly from¬†‘salah satu’ (one of), or simply ‘satu’ (one).

It’s The Smartest Remote

If we say it’s “the smartest remote” then we’re talking about¬†this one exactly, without comparison.

Clearly the advertisers, or journalists, want us to think of this smartphone as somehow unique. It’s not¬†one of many, it’s¬†this one exactly.

One last time for good measure:

  • one of many – ‘a’
  • this one exactly – ‘the’

Try to use these articles in your writing and speaking to communicate these meanings accurately. Then watch as your IELTS grammar scores begin to increase!


Close to edge(?!)

ūüė¶ Many countries¬†are spending a lot of money on space exploration in order to reach¬†edge¬†of the universe.

Unfortunately in English nouns sometimes need some grammar in front of them in order to answer at least one of the following questions:

  • Which one(s)?
  • Whose?
  • How many?

So let’s apply these questions to each of the five nouns in our example and make sure we have the right grammar in front of the noun. Here’s the example with the nouns highlighted:

Many countries are spending a lot of money on space exploration in order to reach edge of the universe.
  1. countries
    1. Which ones? – It doesn’t matter.
    2. Whose? – Doesn’t matter.
    3. How many? – ‘many’¬†answers this question.¬†The number is not exact, but it doesn’t need to be exact. It’s enough to know that¬†more than one country is being referred to.

So far, so good!

  1. money
    1. Which? – It doesn’t matter.
    2. Whose? – We can assume the money is being spent by the ‘countries’.
    3. How much? – ‘a lot of’¬†serves the same function as ‘many’.
  2. exploration
    1. Which? We don’t need any grammar to tell us which ‘exploration’. The word ‘space’ already answers that¬†question. We know that it’s ‘space exploration’, and NOT ‘jungle exploration’ or ‘ocean exploration’.
    2. Whose? – We can assume the countries.
    3. How much? – Not important at this stage.
  3. edge
    1. Which one? – There is some text immediately after ‘edge’ that tells us exactly which¬†edge – the edge¬†of the universe (NOT the edge¬†of the table). However, if it’s clear to both writer and reader exactly which noun is being referred to then in English we have to use the definite article ‘the’ in front of the noun. This¬†was the grammatical error in the sentence – a missing ‘the’: the¬†edge of the universe.
    2. Whose? – Irrelevant.
    3. How many? – Also irrelevant.
  4. universe
    1. Which one? – This is a special use of¬†‘the’ to tell us which one – when there is only one in the writer and reader’s shared context of reference! (Like the moon, the kitchen, etc.)
    2. Whose? – Irrelevant, although it would make for an interesting philosophical discussion!
    3. How many? – Irrelevant, but also interesting from a scientific / philosophical perspective!

flag-of-indonesia Indonesian students are generally clear about whose and how many. However, they often forget to use articles to communicate which one(s).

Note that when a noun is followed by a preposition phrase (e.g.¬†of the universe), that phrase usually tells¬†exactly which noun you’re talking about. Next time you write a preposition phrase after a noun, especially one beginning ‘of’, think about using ‘the’ in front of the noun!

There is an idiom – ‘Close to the edge’ whose idiomatic meaning is perhaps best communicated in the song The Message by Grandmaster Flash:

Don’t push me, ‘coz I’m close to the edge
I’m tryin’ not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from going’ under

You can¬†listen to The Message¬†here and follow the lyrics, but be warned – it’s full of other less useful idioms!

And while we’re talking about music, back in 1972 British prog rock band Yes made an album called Close to the edge!


Not that sector, this one!

ūüė¶ Agricultural sector is different from¬†economic sector in the way research is conducted.

Here the writer is¬†writing about specific sectors.¬†If you say ‘agricultural sector’ we know you do not mean ‘education sector’!

If you want to communicate this one exactly then you need to use ‘the’:

ūüôā The agricultural sector is different from the¬†economic sector in the way research is conducted.

If you do not use ‘the’ when you mean this one exactly then you will receive a low score in IELTS for grammar and for coherence and cohesion.¬†If you do not use ‘the’ when you mean this one exactly then your reader will stop reading and think “Does he mean this one exactly, or does he mean one of many, or does he mean all of them everywhere?” You must communicate one of these meanings if you want to be understood clearly.

If you want to communicate one of many¬†then you need to use ‘a’:

ūüôā Agriculture is a sector that requires different research approaches.

If you want to communicate all of them everywhere¬†then you need to use ‘s’:

ūüôā Government¬†sectors¬†mentioned in the report¬†include agriculture and economics.



DishwasherS, vacuum cleanerS, etc.

ūüė¶ Domestic work is made easier with the use of dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, and washing machine.

It doesn’t matter which dishwasher, which vacuum cleaner, or which washing machine, they all make domestic work easier, or at least so this claim seems to suggest.

ūüôā Domestic work is made easier with the use of dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines.

If your claim applies to all of them everywhere, add an ‘s’ to your noun!


The blah blah thing

ūüė¶ Agricultural sector is different from¬†economic sector in the way research is conducted.

In the noun phrases agricultural sector and economic sector, you mention specific sectors Рagricultural and economic. It is obvious that you are not talking about the bananas sector and the pornography sector.

If you mention a noun and both you and your reader know exactly which noun you’re talking about, then you must use the definite article ‘the’:

ūüôā The agricultural sector is different from the¬†economic sector in the way research is conducted.

Admittedly, identifying the main noun in a noun phrase becomes challenging with longer phrases. For example, can you¬†identify the main noun in the following highlighted phrase? Answers in the comments section¬†below! ūüôā

I sometimes experience difficulties with the less obvious and more subtly nuanced aspects of article use in unnecessarily complicated academic writing.

Have fun with ‘the’. See you in the comments section.