The Grammarphobia Blog

Article physics

Q: Would you explain the presence or absence of the articles “a,” “an,” and “the” to a non-native? None of my ESL teachers have been able to. Every time I think I’ve got it, I read something that leaves me confused. For instance, this line from one of my son’s books: “Piggies love to roll in mud, penguins love the snow.” Why is it “mud,” not “the mud,” and “the snow,” not just “snow”?

A: In a sentence like the one you quote – “Piggies love to roll in mud, penguins love the snow” – the writer can’t go wrong. It’s correct to use articles with both of the nouns (“in the mud … love the snow”), or with neither noun (“in mud” … “love snow”), or with one but not the other, as in the sentence itself.

Both mud and snow are referred to here in a general sense, and when this is the case, the choice of whether to use an article is up to the writer or speaker.

Sometimes the choice is simply a matter of how the sentence sounds. The sentence you mentioned seems like part of a poem, so the writer may have written it that way to preserve the meter of the line.

As for your broader question, about the presence or absence of articles, that’s a complicated subject. Both “Snow was falling heavily” and “The snow was falling heavily” are correct.

But a writer might want the article if the fact that it was snowing had been mentioned earlier. Using “the” somehow suggests that the reader is already familiar with the fact that it was (or might have been) snowing.

“The article is used more sparingly in English than in many other languages,” the grammarian Otto Jespersen writes, adding, “There is a strong tendency to do without it.”

Many words have meanings that are sometimes general and sometimes specific. As a rule, the more general your meaning, the more likely the article can be omitted.

Here are some examples, with the same word used both in a general sense (no article) and in a specific sense (with article):

“Money is not an object” … but … “He left the money in his wallet.”

“Gold is a valuable commodity” … but … “The gold needs polishing.”

“Anger is destructive” … but … “The anger in the room melted away.”

“He went into business in 1900″ … but … “The business prospered.”

By the same token, we generally use articles for buildings, but not for the broader institutions housed in them. So we say, “I get to school by walking” but “I go to the school on the corner.”

There are also differences in article usage with the words “town,” “sea,” “bed,” “home,” names of seasons and others. We omit the article if we refer to them in a general way. For example:

“He lives in town” … but … “The town is 20 miles away.”

“He went to sea” … but … “The sea is turbulent today.”

“I go to bed at 10″ … but … “At 7, I make the bed.”

“We headed for home” … but … “The home next door is for sale.”

“Winter was approaching” … but … “The winter promised to be a long and cold one.” The article is often optional with seasons: “In [the] winter she goes skiing.”

We don’t need articles with people’s names, except when they’re in the plural (“We invited the Smiths”).

Sometimes we use an article with the day of the week, and sometimes we don’t. “They arrived on Saturday” implies that there’s only one Saturday the speaker could mean. But “They arrived on a Saturday” refers to some Saturday in the past, one out of many such Saturdays.

We say “all day,” “all night,” “all evening” … but … “during the day,” “during the night,” “in the evening.”

Jespersen says that common phrases with two or more nouns often omit the articles: “husband and wife,” “right or left,” “house and home,” “end to end,” “north to south,” “body and soul,” “father and son,” etc.

So, for example, you’d say, “The road runs from the north” (one noun), but “The road runs north and south” (two nouns).

I hope this helps.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.