As an editor and translator with years of experience in correcting English written by non-native speakers, I have come across certain areas that seem to be major pitfalls for Chinese speakers when writing in English. These mistakes are usually the writer's Chinese grammar or diction unconsciously coming out in their English exposition, or perhaps simply a unfamiliarity with English composition at its higher levels.
This monthly column can teach you to spot these common writing pitfalls and thus avoid having them find their way into your English composition. It will not be a list of grammar rules to follow, but instead a look into how we can improve the style and force of our English writing.
Today we are going to discuss a small, but frequent problem that ESL learners exhibit when writing in English: the omission or misuse of articles.
First off, let’s do a quick review on articles. English has two articles:
‘the’—the definite article 第一种是定冠词「那个(the)」。
‘a/an’—the indefinite article. 第二种是不定冠词「一个(a/an)」。
There is almost no easier way to make your English sound foreign or “non-native” than to misuse articles in speech or writing. Unfortunately, for many Chinese speakers, articles are not only often omitted, but at times mixed up, or used when they are not required.
So what is the difference between the definite article and indefinite article?
One simple definition would be: A definite article is used in front of specific nouns, while the indefinite article is used to modify general, non-specific nouns.
So, for example, if I say “I want the book for Christmas” the definite article ‘the’ points to the fact that I want a very specific book.
But if I say “I want a car for Christmas” the use of the indefinite article means that I am not asking for a specific car, in fact, any car will do.
However, if the person I was talking to referred back to that same car, he would use the definite article since he would be talking about a very specific car (i.e. the car that I want for Christmas) and one that I had mentioned previously.
Therefore, we can also understand the use of the definite and indefinite article by looking at the overall context of the sentence(s). For example, the indefinite article is often used to introduce new information, or something that is unfamiliar to the listener/ reader:
1，I saw a car yesterday. 昨天我看见一辆车。
2，Tomorrow a plumber is going to come over. 明天有一位水管工人会过来一趟。
(In both cases, the speaker or writer is introducing something new to the listener/reader.)
Using the definite article, however, we are signaling that the listener/reader probably knows what we are referring to; either because it is common knowledge, or because it is something we have mentioned previously:
1，I saw a car yesterday. It reminded me of the car that you said you wanted for your birthday.
2，Tomorrow the plumber is going to come over.(Perhaps reminding the speaker of something that both parties were already aware of)
There are also dozens of rules regarding where you can or can not use the definite article. Confused yet? Don’t worry, articles and their use are confusing for even native speakers, but with a little practice you can get the general rules down.
Let’s now take a look at some sentences written by non-native English speakers and see where they went wrong.
Problem: Missing ‘the’
1，Back then, a volunteer of (the) local chapter started recruiting members at a local supermarket.
2，Volunteers from Tokyo mobilized to visit (the) rescue centers and hospitals where (the) victims were sent.
3，The movement has also united people from different faiths to work together on behalf of (the) survivors.
Problem: ‘a’ mistakenly used in place of ‘the’
1，Despite the makeshift operation room, the doctors conducted a (the) surgery with full confidence. (The definite article here is correct as the sentence is referring to one particular surgery.)
Problem: ‘the’ mistakenly used in place of ‘a’
1，The sign was posted above the camp. Volunteers said the sign was important for keeping peace in the camp. (Here “the sign” should be “a sign” as this is new information for the reader.)
Problem: ‘the’ used where not needed
1，Passang Lama is always seen wearing a long ponytail as it is a tradition in the Tibet for men and women to wear their hair long. (No ‘the’ in front of country names…although there are a few exceptions to this rule)
2，Volunteers of the Beijing’s Chaoyang District called on members of the community to join the event. (No ‘the’ in front of city/street/names)