The most common mistakes I see are:
- The use of THE when no article is required.
- The use of A or AN for non-count nouns.
- The use of A or AN with plural nouns.
- Using no article when an article is necessary.
These are also huge problems in speaking. Yes, they will cause you to lose points.
In this blog post, I will go over some of the basic rules. This DOES NOT cover everything about articles. Do not say, “I don’t need to read anything else about this topic.” This is a very complicated grammar point in English, but I am going to go over the most common mistakes I see and hear.
First and foremost, you must remember that “a” and “an” mean ONE. They cannot be used with plural nouns. These are incorrect:
A WHITE LABORATORY MICE, A WONDERFUL FRIENDS, A GOOD PROFESSORS, A TERRIBLE BOOKS, A DISOBEDIENT CHILDREN, AN INTERESTING MOVIES, AN AMAZING TRAVELS.
These are all plural nouns! Do not use “a” or “an.” I hear this frequently in speaking and see it in essays.
SIMILARILY, DO NOT USE “A” or “AN” for non- count nouns!
These are incorrect:
AN INFORMATION, AN ADVICE, A RESEARCH, A RICE, A FURNITURE, AN EQUIPMENT, and so on!
We use “the” when there is only one of something.
I use the internet to do research. The earth goes around the sun. I am going to swim in the Red Sea.
We also write THE OCEAN, THE SEA, THE SKY, THE GROUND, THE COUNTRY, THE ENVIRONMENT,
THE HOSPITAL (U.S. English)
She cares about the environment. I like to swim in the sea. She threw her papers on the ground. I prefer to live in the country. There are billions of stars in the sky. Last year I got COVID-19 and spent a week in the hospital.
In English, we also use “the” before MOVIES, THEATER, BEACH, LIBRARY, GYM, NEWSPAPER, AND RADIO.
He works out every day at the gym. They enjoy going to the beach. I prefer to study at the library. I would rather go to the theater than watch television at home. Would you like to go to the movies tonight? I prefer to drive alone so I can listen to the radio. My husband reads the newspaper every day with a cup of coffee.
We also use the + groups of people (adjective, without a noun) — in particular:
The young, the old, the homeless, the rich, the poor, the unemployed, the dead, the injured, the sick, the disabled.
We must ensure that the young get a proper education. Many people believe the rich do not pay their fair share of taxes. There are not enough hospital beds for the sick. The elderly are sometimes forgotten by their younger relatives. There needs to be more access to this building for the disabled. The injured were taken by helicopter to the hospital. There are many jobs in our city that attract the unemployed.
NOTE: These are plural! Do not say “an injured” when referring to a group of injured people.
However, you can use “a” or “an” if these are followed by a singular noun.
An injured boy was taken to the hospital. A homeless man in my neighborhood asked me for some change. There was a sick child at my son’s school today, so the entire class caught a cold.
NOTE: School vs. the school; university vs. the university; college vs. the college
Obviously, this error happens a lot in both TOEFL and IELTS.
When we say a student goes to school or is in school, we do not have a particular school building in mind. We are saying they are a student. Do not use an article.
He goes to university in California. My daughter attends school in Los Angeles. I would like to go back to school to finish my education. She is in college in another state, but she wants to transfer. When my daughter finishes high school, I want to encourage her to go to university. When I was in high school, I got excellent grades in math. I went to pharmacy school in Egypt.
When we say “the school” we are referring to a particular school, or the building. Compare these with the previous examples:
At three in the afternoon, I need to drive to the school to pick up my daughter. The school my son goes to has classes for children with autism. It was a disaster for many people when the school on my street burned down. The university in my city is very well-respected for its medical program. The college that my daughter attends has an amazing reputation for its cutting-edge technology.
Another rule is that when we are talking about things in general, we do not use any article.
She is afraid of snakes. (not “the snakes”) Owls are nocturnal birds. (not “the owls”) I love Korean food. (not “the Korean food.”) My weakest subject in school was math. (not “the math”) She watches baseball every Sunday. (not “the baseball”) Wolves are predators, and they hunt for small rodents. (not “the wolves” or “the small rodents.”) Dinosaurs went extinct sixty-five million years ago. (not “the dinosaurs.”)
Note: We do use “the” when we talk about particular things or people. Compare these sentences to the ones in the previous example:
She is afraid of the snakes that have red and black stripes, because she knows they carry a deadly toxin. The owls in my neighborhood call out to each other at night. I love the Korean food that my mother-in-law cooks on Thanksgiving. I had difficulty with the math that we learned in our statistics class. The baseball that she watches on Sundays has an all-female team. The wolves that live in this alpine forest hunt for the rodents that come out of their hiding places at night. Only the dinosaurs that could not fly went extinct, while others evolved into birds.
Can you see the difference? In the sentences above, I am talking about specific things, and so I use “the.”
You can use “the” if you are referring to something you already mentioned.
Birds eat butterflies, but they need to make sure the butterflies that they consume do not have a toxin that can make them sick.
I remember my teacher in fourth grade, Mr. Sampson. He was the teacher who made the biggest difference in my life.
She hired a jewelry expert to come into her store and evaluate all of her jewels to prove they were real, and not just pieces of glass. After the expert examined the jewels, he gave her paperwork to indicate that her jewelry was authentic.
If often listen to music, but the music that I listen to annoys my roommate.
Skunks have distinctive white stripes on their backs. The stripes are very visible to predators, and warn any potential predator that skunks have a defense mechanism.
EXERCISE: ALL OF THESE SENTENCES HAVE A MISTAKE OR TWO. WRITE DOWN THE CORRECT SENTENCE ON PAPER, THEN CHECK YOUR ANSWER BELOW. These are not in the order of the lesson! They are all mixed up! Good luck.
- Haiti is prone to a terrible earthquakes.
- I don’t like where I live, because an obnoxious children lives next door and makes so much noise.
- In order to relax, my father spends a lot of time walking along a sea.
- In order to grow crops, there must be sufficient nitrogen in ground for plants to get the nutrients they need.
- She should take allergy medication that was prescribed by her doctor.
- I personally prefer to go to library to study, because it’s quieter than my house.
- There needs to be more programs in my community to help an unemployed find jobs.
- Personally, I prefer to live in a country because there is so much peace and quiet, so I moved from New York to Iowa.
- In order to capture their prey, hawks have amazing eyesight that allows them to spot the mice from a long distance.
- Children in my neighborhood are so noisy that I cannot sleep at night.
- The fitness center in our college needs to add a new exercise equipment for the students. What we have now is too old, so even an athletic students do not use it.
- My daughter goes to the university to study medicine and hopes to become a doctor in the future.
- I need to go to school to pick up my daughter’s backpack. She forgot it in math classroom.
- While evolution is well understood in general, there are still many a questions that remain.
- Finally, my husband and I saved enough money to buy a beautiful house in the mountains. A house has three bedrooms and two bathrooms, and is close to a beautiful parks.
- He gave me an advice that made a huge difference in my life.
- When she was seven, my daughter broke her arm and was in hospital for three days.
- My father reads newspaper every day to find out what is going on in his country.
- To find out more about how appetite works, they plan to do a research on mice.
- The albatrosses are able to cover such long distances because they have long wingspans, and can cover up to one thousand miles in a single day.
- Terrible earthquakes (no “a”)
- An obnoxious child
- The sea
- The ground
- The allergy medication
- The library
- The unemployed
- The country
- Mice (no “the”)
- The children
- Add new exercise equipment (no “a”); athletic students (no “an”)
- Goes to university (no “the”)
- The school, the math classroom
- Many questions (no “a”)
- The house has three bedrooms; close to beautiful parks (no “a”)
- He gave me advice (no “an”)
- The hospital (U.S. English)
- The newspaper
- Do research (no “a”)
- Albatrosses (no “the”)