Do you use articles without thinking?

The purpose of articles

Published: 08th August 2016 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th August 2016 12:06 PM   |  A+A-

A non-native speaker of English came across this sentence “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” while reading a book. As he did not understand the real meaning of the Biblical verse (Mathew 26:41), he asked his friend to translate it into his mother tongue. The translation was similar to this: “The whisky is all right, but the beef is bad.” The words ‘spirit’ and ‘flesh’ have different meanings in the verse. The verse can be interpreted as this: Although our intentions are good, we are unable to live up to them due to some factors. ‘Spirit’ can be interpreted as the way we feel and think and ‘flesh’ can be interpreted as factors such as time, money, energy, skills, etc.

English.jpgLanguages differ in many ways. Meanings are not the same in all languages. In some languages there are no words for certain objects and ideas/concepts. English language learners are influenced by their first language (mother tongue) to a great extent till they expand their knowledge of English. One’s first language can either support or hinder the learner during the process of learning the target language. The influence of one’s mother tongue can be noticed when learners try to construct new sentences. Many common errors, especially in the use of articles, are due the interference of one’s mother tongue. 

Most learners of English use articles before certain nouns which do not require articles. By being familiar with the ‘zero article’ rules, they can avoid making such mistakes.  Below are some of the rules:

1. Articles are needed before abstract nouns:

a) Show mercy to the poor.

b) Justice delayed is justice denied.

2. Articles are not needed before bed, church, hospital, prison, school, college, university, etc.

a) At what time do you go to bed?

b) She has gone to church.

c) He has been admitted to hospital.

If, however, articles are used before the nouns listed above, the purpose is different as in the examples below:

a) Don’t sit on the bed and read.

b) Ask the woman to clean the church.

c) I went to the hospital to visit the patient.

3. Articles are not needed in expressions like to/at sea, to/at/out of work, in/out of town, in/out of office, etc. If, however, we talk about some place in particular, then the definite article ‘the’ is used.  Consider these examples:

a) I’ll be out of town till next Wednesday.

b) We need to get out of the town by tomorrow.  (a particular town).

c) Check whether she is in office.

d) I spent the whole day in the office. (specific workplace)

Dr Albert P’ Rayan is an ELT Resource Person and Professor of English. He can be contacted at

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