writing corner

The Writing Corner on Academic Writing , May, 18

In our weekly newsletter, we present a series of topics designed to address students’ concerns about the elements and characteristics of academic writing. The topic of this week is – What’s the deal with the the?


The question above may be perplexing to many, but especially to those whose native language does not include the concept of articles. Russian is one of these languages. English speakers employ articles (part of the broader category of determiners) both in writing and in speech. We use articles to denote specificity, quantity, and sometimes as adjectives too. English has two articles: the and a/an. The is used to refer to specific or particular nouns; a/an is used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. We call the the definite article and a/an the indefinite article. 

Without doing a deep-dive into English-language grammar structures, and because oftentimes applying a concept is quite efficient, let’s look at sample statements below. 

I am a teacher. (I am a member of a large group known as teachers.) NOT I am teacher.

Brian is an Irishman. (Brian is a member of the people known as Irish.) NOT Brian is Irishman. 

The can be used with noncount nouns, or the article can be omitted entirely. (See flowchart above)

 “I love to sail over the water” (some specific body of water) or “I love to sail over water” (any water).

A/an can be used only with count nouns:

 “I need a bottle of water.”

“The basket is missing an apple.”

Now, you try! Refer to the flowchart above for hints. 

“____________ (the/a/an/ø) white tiger escaped from its enclosure, jumped over _____

 (the/a/an/ø) freshly mowed shrubbery, ran quickly through _________ (the/a/an/ø) aquarium,

 and knocked over _______ (the/a/an/ø) zookeeper’s cart.”

Check in next week for the answers to the missing articles exercise above. Happy writing! 

by Leticia Medina 

About Academic Writing University Center

The AWUC provides language support services to university PhD students, researchers and faculty for every stage of their academic career and for any kind of writing, e.g. abstract writing, conference papers, dissertation and thesis writing, grant proposal writing, research papers, etc. in English.