Saturday, January 29, 2011

To "the" or not to "the," that is the question

Probably the most tricky question, even for advanced students of English, is when to use "the" (or "a") and when to omit it. "He grabbed the ball and ran with it" is correct because it is proper to use "the" with a countable noun (see below) when you are referring to something specific. So in this case we understand that he grabbed a specific ball, and it is assumed that the ball has already been identified in a previous sentence. "He grabbed that ball and ran with it" would mean essentially the same thing. "He grabbed a ball and ran with it" is also correct, but has a different meaning, because "a" (or "an") is used when referring to something nonspecific. "He grabbed any ball and ran with it" has essentially the same meaning.

"He grabbed ball and ran with it" is incorrect, because we need a modifier, such as "the," "a", "any," "some," or "that," prior to that particular type of noun. And first, before we go any farther, we need to understand that there are indeed different types of noun and that each type must be treated differently. "Ball" is a countable noun, which means that what it refers to can be enumerated. We can have one ball, two balls, three balls, etc. and the number of balls to which we refer can therefore be counted. A countable noun must always be preceded by an appropriate modifier, such as "the," "a," "any," etc. Because such a noun is countable, numeric terms can also be used, instead of articles: "He grabbed one ball" or "He grabbed two balls," etc. would be just as correct as "He grabbed the ball" or "He grabbed some balls."

"He grabbed existentialism and ran with it" is correct (as a metaphor, natch), even though the noun is not preceded by a modifier. We cannot talk in terms of one or two or three "existentialisms," which means that "existentialism" is an uncountable noun -- and uncountable nouns are never preceded by a modifier such as "the," "a," "any," "some," etc. This is a rule of English grammar but it is also logical, because it would be illogical to specify such a noun in terms that imply it can be counted, when it can't. "Wait a minute," you might say. "There can be more than one type of existentialism, so why doesn't that word count as countable?" My answer: yes, there is more than one type of existentialism, and "type" is in fact a countable noun. So it would be correct to write: "He grabbed a type of existentialism and ran with it." Or, "He grabbed that type of existentialism and ran with it."

More on this topic in my next post.

Remember, you are invited to use the "Comments" window to send me passages from your own writings, if you would like me to go over them for possible errors.

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