The simplest word is awfully complicated . . .

[The] inconsistent articles
©Information Disciplines, Inc., Chicago
Conrad Weisert, 2 April 2009


The challenge

Among the huge family of indo-European languages English is one of the most difficult to master. Rules for using one of the most common and seemingly simple words, the definite article the, are so arbitrary and inconsistent, that they're almost impossible to explain to someone trying to learn English idioms.

Dictionaries tell us that the definite article denotes a specific object, often one previously mentioned. But everyday usage flouts that distinction.

Is your disease definite, indefinite, or neither?

What's the rule here:
  • I came down with the flu.
  • I came down with a cold.
  • I came down with bronchitis
  • Have you ever had the mumps?
  • Have you ever had a migraine?
  • Have you ever had pneumonia?

There is no logical rule that we can explain to the poor student. He or she has to memorize each disease idiom as a special case.

Is your institution definite?

This one is a peculiarity only of American English. British English is more consistent.
  • He was in jail.
  • He was in church
  • He was in the hospital
  • He was at school
  • He was at the university

When an American television reporter tells us that an accident victim was "taken to the hospital" he doesn't mean some specific hospital; he just means that the victim was hospitalized, or as the British say "taken to hospital".

Which centers are definite

Landmarks in American cities are often called "'centers":
  • I went to a concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington
  • I saw a hockey game at the United Center in Chicago
  • The next night I went to a concert at Lincoln Center in New York
  • I watched ice skaters at Rockefeller Center in New York

One person tried to explain the rule: If it's in New York, don't use the article. Another tried: If the name has three syllables, use the article. But we can find lots of exceptions both ways. Again there seems to be no logical rule.

Definitive media

Here's another inconsistency:
  • I heard the news on the radio.
  • I read it in the paper.
  • I watched the news on television.

And please don't interrupt me when I'm on the computer.

Bottom line

There are European languages (Russian) that don't use articles at all, and there are others that use them in a more consistent way (French). English speakers, especially Americans, both native and learning, just have to accept this peculiarity as an extra burden on their memories.

And those of us who were watching TV in the 1960s remember the difference in German between " ein Berliner" and "Berliner".


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Last modified 2 April 2009