Grammar may not be the most important factor in IELTS writing and speaking, but it is certainly an important factor. Stop right there.
Stop and consider: what is the difference between “the” and “an” in the previous sentence? If you can’t give me an answer to that, you should certainly read on. Even if you can, I still suggest you should: articles matter.
Why articles matter
“The” is the most common word in English, “a” is the fifth most common, and statistically this means these are the words that you are most likely to make mistakes with: simply because they are the words you use most. Indeed in my experience in IELTS, and elsewhere, it is not the big words that cause the most problems, but the little ones.
Are you Indian? Do you speak Spanish, Mandarin, German, Russian, Arabic………?
It doesn’t really matter what language you speak, as the other major problem is that different languages use articles in different ways. For instance, certain Asian languages do not use articles and Indian language speakers, for example, often do not use articles at all in English. Again, certain European languages use articles differently: the word for “information” in French is “l’information” and French speakers will use articles in English when they shouldn’t. It’s a lose- lose situation.
My personal solution is to show you the general principles of how articles work in English. It isn’t going to be a complete solution: I don’t want to try and give you one, I’d confuse myself and confuse you too probably. Rather, this is a solution designed to enable you to get articles right 7/8 times out of 10 and it is practical in that you can use it for yourself in the exam without a reference book beside you.
First of all, two concepts need to be understood:
Concept 1 – general and particular
What is the difference between “pollution” and “the pollution”? One is a general concept , the other a particular one.
“Pollution – no article” is general.
“Pollution is one of the major issues facing mankind in the 21st century.”
“The pollution” – is particular and refers to an example.
“Perhaps the first step is to combat the air pollution in the cities caused by...”
Concept 2 – countable and uncountable
Some words in English are countable and some are uncountable. And, just to confuse you,
there are a surprising number that are both!
“information” is uncountable: we cannot say “an information” but have to say something like “a piece of information”
“newspaper” in contrast is countable: grammatically we can say “newspapers” “the newsaper” and “a newspaper”, but not “newspaper”
Let me help. Here it is in short. Think about general/particular, then think about countable uncountable.
1. If you are speaking about something in particular, you use the definite article “the” both for countable and uncountable nouns.
2. If you are speaking about something in general, you have a choice:
no article – “research”
a – “a bicycle”
Note that if you have a countable noun, it must either be plural and/or have an article or another quantifier such as “some”
Is this enough?
Maybe. Maybe not. This will depend on your required score and level of general English. If you need your 7 in IELTS it could be enough, as you need to show the examiner that you do not have problems with basic grammar. Note
- the papers are marked quickly – and certain article errors may not be noticed
- if you get 80% of your articles correct, it should be clear that you have control over the language – your mistakes may be “forgiven”
- not all mistakes with articles are bad – this is a complex area
- you are also given credit for the good things you do too.
There are many, many exceptions to note which I hope to come back to another time, but for now let me mention that geographical terms are always a problem (The Himalayas but Mount Everest) (England but the UK).
Notes and a very common mistake
To keep this simple and – sometimes simple is good – I haven’t really mentioned quantifiers and determiners. These are other words that work in much the same way as articles. Let me note, however, these two very common mistakes
“the most people” = “most people” (being a general statement there is no article, just a plural noun)
“most of people” = “most of the people” (being a specific statement we need the definite article and we put it directly before the noun)
Do you want more?
The best internet resource for this is Cloze Test Creator: all you have to do is find a text from the internet, copy paste it into the screen, select Interactive and articles and hey presto you have an instant test. Completely brilliant – not least because you can do it time and again. Here is a brief video tutorial on how to use the program:
More? Something you should think about doing looking at your own writing critically. This is excellent exam preparation:
- read some of your own essays
- find the nouns
- decide in your mind whether you need an article: if you do decide which article you need
- make a list of your own article mistakes
A useful link
If you are looking for more complexity try http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/determiners/determiners.htm