A, An, or The? …THAT is the question!

The title of this post is a play on words* referencing the frequently quoted Shakespearean character of Hamlet who was wondering if his life was worth the struggle when he said, “To be or not to be that is the question.” life is worth the struggle Click To Tweet

My brother in "Annie Get Your Gun"
My brother in “Annie Get Your Gun”

Two things! First, life is worth the struggle (see My Take On It below). And second, whether to use “a,” “an,” or “the“…THAT is the question!

Even so, it is difficult to find material for intermediate and advanced learners on article use.  After some research on this topic, this is what I found: EnglishPage.com  has an extensive tutorial with examples and exercises for 25 types of article use. The English Club has simple explanations with a cute story at the bottom of the page.

English language learners find it confusing that so many words can be paired with both “a/an” or “the.” Just remember “a/an” means “one” of something (any one item in the group of things you are talking about).  So, “I ate an apple,” indicates the apple wasn’t special (it was one of several apples).

“The” is special (sometimes pronounced as “Thee”*). The” means the specific one. So, “I ate the apple,” would indicate there was only one apple available and I ate it! (Sorry! There may be a banana left!)  Similarly, if there is a limited number of an item you might say, “I ate one of the apples.”Sorry! There may be a banana left! Click To Tweet

Switch hitters*, words that switch sides

(Since I  am also a baseball fan, I will introduce baseball terms throughout this blog.  A switch hitter* is a player that can bat both right and left-handed).

My Grandson at bat, playing T-ball.

Here is what the other English language sites didn’t say:

The article “the” is often used to refer to any gym, hospital, store, and library. Example:

  • I’m going to the storeThis usually means the grocery store. It could be one of several that you go to, but it is familiar and it has a special purpose, so we say “the.”  The statement, “I’m going to a store,” seems incomplete.  What store? Why are you telling me about any store?  In this case, we need to add additional information: “I’m going to a store which sells dog collars.”  If you don’t want to be specific you should say, “I’m going shopping.”
  • I’m going to the gym. We are creatures of habit. So, we tend to go to the same gym. Although, even if you were gym-hopping*, you would still say that you were headed to the gym.  However, a gym-hopper could also say, “I’m going to try out a new gym.” Then you would be emphasizing that it is one of several gyms that you are trying.

            NOTE: A gym is a large room for exercising. A  gym doesn’t always have to have equipment (in that case,  usually it has a wood floor).  Smaller rooms with exercise equipment (like in hotels) are called “exercise rooms.”

  • I had to go to the hospital last weekEven though my community has five hospitals, I would still say “the hospital.”  Yes. It is one of several, so it meets the definition given for “a” but it has a special purpose and I am familiar with those hospitals, so I say “the.”  However, if I was in another community (or a foreign country) I might say, “I had to go to a hospital.”  In this case my  lack of familiarity with that hospital is conveyed.

My Country ‘Tis of Thee…

This is the first line of a well-known patriotic song (Clicking the link above will take you to Kelly Clarkson’s performance at President Obama’s 2013 Inauguration*). Thee means “you” in 17th century English, and is still heard in many churches today because it the language of the popular King James Version Bible.

Sometimes “the” is pronounced “thuh,” other times it is pronounced “thee.”  Remember how “a” becomes “an” before a vowel sound?  Similarly, when “the” comes before a vowel SOUND we say “thee.”  For example, although the word “utility” starts with a vowel it is pronounced as YOUtil’ity.  So, we would say “thuh” utility.

Lessons for Learning

Lessons for Teaching

Clicking on the link above will take you to the teaching material for the lesson above.

   My Take On It

Humans tend to be lazy.  When we are in our comfort zone* there is no motivation to change.  Although most of us don’t enjoy struggling, the struggle is what changes us and makes us stronger and wiser.

Do you know The Butterfly story?  Here it is as retold by Matt Townsend

“A man found a cocoon of a butterfly…

One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could, and it could go no further.

So the man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.

The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.

What the man, in his kindness and haste, did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were God’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.

Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our lives. If God allowed us to go through our lives without any obstacles, it would cripple us. We would not be as strong as what we could have been. We could never fly!”

–Author Unknown

4 thoughts on “A, An, or The? …THAT is the question!

    1. A good example of a play on words! Store can be used as a verb: to store (up) is to put “in storage.” So, Guy referenced the noun “store” by saying, “When you go shopping.” Very clever! 😉 Michele

  1. With “an” apple and “a” banana all that is needed for a good fruit salad is “an” orange!
    Notice I used the correct article before “the” (‘thuh’) words apple and orange which begin with the vowels “a” and “o”. There are only six vowels in the English alphabet. They are “a,e,i,o,u”, and sometimes “y”. The remainder of the letters in our alphabet are called consonants. I understand that they are called ‘constonants’ because they are ‘sounded ‘ consistently the same way in the words they appear. Am I right?

    1. I can see the resemblence between the word “constant” and “consonant.” However, these concepts are not related. There is an interesting, albeit* technical explanation of what makes a vowel a vowel and a consonant a consonant at “Today I Found Out” http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/04/makes-vowel-vowel-consonant-consonant/

      Basically, the author Emily Upton, explains that vowels are open sounds while “a consonant is a sound that is made with the air stopping once or more during the vocalization.” Our lips, tongue, or even throat can be used to control consonant sounds.

      As for the wily* (pronounced WHILE’ee) “y,” whether it is functioning as a vowel or consonant depends on whats happening in our mouth. For example, in the words “gym,” or “cry” the y is open (a short i or long i respectively). It is a vowel. In the words “youth,” or “beyond” you noctice involvement of the tongue, making it a consonant.

      Regarding the consistency of consonant sounds, once again English can be tricky (You might like to see my phonetic alphabet book http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=9AasmzZy4cMr2 ) which gives examples of several consonants with multiple sounds: c, g, k, and x.

      Thanks for your excellent question! Michele

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