• Chelsea Hartlen

English, Why Are You Like This? #1

Part 2 of my PPE series (rant?) is on its way, but I have a lot of writing consults, manuscript preparation and this little thing called a PhD dissertation on my plate this week, so I've contented myself with popping in briefly to share a tiny trick regarding articles.

EAL writers will be familiar with articles, but for those of you who aren't, here is a brief overview.

Articles are the little adjectives that go in front of nouns:

  • a/an (general)

  • the (specific)

  • zero/no article (several situations)

If you've grown up speaking English, using articles is probably instinctual; however, many languages just don't have them. For this reason, EAL instructors and scholars have developed charts and decision trees to help guide writers to the best choice of article. These charts can be only so specific, and there are many exceptions to the rules.

The most common issue I see is a missing article in front of a noun that is modified by a prepositional phrase: for example, writers omitting 'the' in front of phrases like 'biology of a cell'. A sample sentence might look something like this:

This review provides in-depth information about biology of a cell.

To most native English speakers, that immediately sounds wrong, but it's easy for an EAL writer to arrive at 'no article needed' when using an article chart to decide in this instance.

It took me a while to figure out what was happening, but it's clear now that the error is occurring at the specific/general stage of the decision tree.

The word 'biology' is common, non-countable and general, so it doesn't get an article according to the decision tree.


As soon as we put 'of a cell' at the end of it, we've just made biology specific. It's no longer biology, the common, non-countable, general physiological or behavioural qualities of an organism. Nope, now it's the common, non-countable, specific physiological or behavioural qualities of one particular organism: a cell.

The formula is basically as such:

In [noun1] + of [noun2], noun1 is made specific by the addition of the prepositional phrase 'of noun2'. By adding that extra information, we are limiting a previously general noun and making it specific by giving it a specific quality or character.


I study history. [generally]

I study the history of Scotland. [specifically]

This study explains histological features. [generally]

This study explains the histological features of breast cancer. [specifically]

Wasn't that fascinating?! *looks around* Oh, just me? Okay. That's alright. I had fun!

I'll be back next week with. . . something. Maybe it'll be PPE Part 2; perhaps it'll be another random musing on odd bits of English grammar. Who knows?!

Now go forth and amaze the world with your mastery of articles, my lovelies!

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