Advice for Chinese Students on the Use of English Articles

After reading hundreds of papers written in English by intelligent and sincere Chinese students, I have become acutely aware of the problem such students face in attempting to deal with articles in the English language. The Chinese language does not contain articles, and students seeking to master English must therefore not only learn about articles but also understand rather complex rules about their use. I am a historian and claim no particular expertise in the teaching of English. However, after consulting dictionaries, style manuals, and colleagues who teach English, I offer the following rules with the hope that they will prove helpful.

English has two articles, "a" (or "an" if used before a word beginning with a vowel) is the indefinite article; "the" is the definite article. Articles are sometimes used before a noun and "typically have a grammatical function identifying the noun as a noun rather than describing it. In English . . . their force is generally to impart specificity to the noun or to single out the referent from the class named by the noun" (Random House College Dictionary).

You need no article when you are referring to an entire class. The indefinite article "a" is used when you are introducing a single but unspecified person or thing and have no reason to believe the reader will know, apart from this noun, what you are talking about. The definite article "the" is used to indicate a specific person or thing with which the reader may be expected to be familiar.


I. Examples of sentences in which a noun refers to a whole class and no article is required:

a. Diplomacy is an interesting subject.

b. American religion is a topic with which most Chinese students are relatively unfamiliar.

c. History is usually understood and appreciated more by older students than by younger ones.

In these sentences you are referring to a whole class with the use of the noun, and you therefore need no article at all.

II. Examples of sentences in which nouns are not specific but do not refer to an entire class:

a. A diplomacy is essential for every nation.

b. William James argues that every person has the right to believe in a religion.

c. A national history is generally better understood by persons familiar with the nation and its culture.

In these sentences you are introducing nouns that are not specific and do not refer to an entire class. A national history is only one of many possible national histories, etc. Therefore, the indefinite article is required.

III. Examples of sentences in which a specific noun with which the reader is expected to be familiar is used requiring the definite article:

a. The diplomacy of China is sometimes troubling to Americans.

b. The religion of Reinhold Niebuhr was Protestant Christianity.

c. History (1) has many sub-disciplines including national history, and the history (2) of China is a good example of a national history (3).

In these sentences you are identifying a particular and specific example of the noun and therefore must use the definite article. In the final sentence, I have used history as a class (1), definitely (2), and indefinitely (3) using respectively no article, the definite article, and the indefinite article.