Why articles in IELTS 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.
A two step solution
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. 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. The idea is that you ask yourself two questions:
- step 1 ask if is it general or particular
- step 2 ask if is it a countable or uncountable noun
Some basic concepts first
Before I show you the solution, I first need to check some basic concepts.
Concept 1 – general and particular
To see this idea, ask yourself what the difference is between “pollution” and “the pollution”? Pollution is general, while “the pollution is much more specific – an a particular instance of something. Look at these two examples:
Pollution is one of the major issues facing mankind in the 21st century.
Here “Pollution” is general
Perhaps the first step is to combat the air pollution in the cities caused by factories.
Here by contrast “The pollution” – is particular and refers to an instance of pollution.
Concept 2 – countable and uncountable
To understand the second idea you first need to see that some words in English are countable and others uncountable. And, just to confuse you,there are a surprising number that are both!
Countable nouns are words we can put in the plural or use with “a”. Often they are “thing” type words such as newspaper e.g.
newspapers and a newspaper
Uncountable nouns are those words we cannot put in the plural or use “a” with. Often they are idea/abstract/concept words such as information e.g.
informations is wrong, so is an information, we need to say information or the information
Flexible nouns are words which are sometimes countable and sometimes uncountable. These are often the ones that may catch you out. You really want to decide if you are talking about the thing or the idea. Look at the word university e.g.
He is going to university next year (uncountable)
He wants to go to a university close to his family. (countable)
Test yourself on countable and uncountable nouns
Countable and uncountable
Putting it into practice – the “rules”
I think the best way to show you my solution is to look at this table. It really does show you the key ideas you need to correct your most of your mistakes. I like it because it is so simple. It is something you can carry around inside your head.
- Countable nouns must have an article or something like an article such as some, many etc, or be put into the plural.
- The only time you can’t have an article with a noun is when it is an uncountable noun used in the general meaning.
- We always need the when we are talking about something in particular.
- Don’t forget that some words like university are flexible and can sometimes be countable and sometimes uncountable
Is this enough?
No. It isn’t the whole story. There is more to articles than this, but as I said above it is surprising how far it can take you. I have cheated slightly where I say that a chair is an example of general meaning. But I find that in practice this explanation does work for most learners.
I’d add that some words have their own grammar and you may need to learn them one by one. Geographical terms are a problem where there is little logic. So these you just have to learn:
Another unusual case is where we sometimes use “the” when we are talking generally about a category of things. So we can say:
the bicycle is a very common form of transport in Cambridge