By Susan Carter

Whenever I correct articles in doctoral writing, I get tangled trying to explain why, and often, like now, can only conclude that English is a sod of a language with tricky slithery rules that you simply have to learn and apply. Rules with English grammar do not always have an apparent logic. Those little prefixes to nouns, the troupe of articles, are as troublesome for many doctoral writers as getting journal articles published is for others.

It’s quite hard sometimes deciding whether a noun needs an article, and which one it might need. That is because many nouns in research writing are abstract, sometimes influenced by theory. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether abstracts are countable or uncountable, for example.  This post grapples with the task of suggesting how to make those ‘to article or not to article’ decisions.

There are rules about article use that mostly work in straight forward ways with concrete nouns, and grammar book examples always use concrete nouns. Concrete nouns are very likeable because they are straightforward, words like ‘chair’, ‘dog’ and ‘lunch.’ It is helpful to know such rules, but I am trying to extend them to those troubling big abstract nouns, like ‘generalisability,’ ‘ideology’ and ‘viscosity’, that dwell in doctoral writing. And I am wondering whether some of the rules about article use contradict each other and that is where it gets challenging.

Rules about articles that derive from the use of concrete nouns

At risk of boring those who know this stuff inside out, because not everyone does I will rehearse that there are just a couple of criteria for choice articles with concrete nouns. One is whether the noun is plural or singular. We quickly learn not to use ‘a’ with a plural noun.

Other criteria consider whether the audience already knows what you are talking about because it is something specific. Nouns have names that give a clue as to when to use articles with them: ‘a’ is used with an indefinite noun and ‘the’ with a definite noun. If a noun is indefinite, your audience doesn’t know which specific one of its kind you mean. The indefinite term is general. If a noun is definite, then listeners definitely do know exactly which one.

‘A’ goes with indefinite, and ‘the’ with definite. On first use of a noun (when the listener or reader doesn’t already know what it is), we use ‘a’ and thereafter, when the audience knows which one we mean, we use ‘the’. I live in a house. The house has two bedrooms. We cannot use ‘the’ on first mention—if I am asked ‘What sort of place do you live in’ I cannot reply ‘I live in the house’. We use ‘the’ when the audience knows what we are talking about and we cannot use it when they don’t—that rule is likely to be handy in academic prose.

We can use ‘the’ when we mean ‘all’, that is, when we are making a general rule: The dog is a mammal with four legs. However, we also do not need to do it that way—another option is to use the plural with no article: Dogs are mammals with four legs. I prefer the latter version as it is slightly less formal and stiff. A friend commented that she learned the plural version as the ‘silent all’ rule, that is, there’s an understood but unstated ‘silent all’ before dogs. The silent all rule may be useful for doctoral writers using abstract nouns.

We use ‘the’ and ‘some’ for both countable and uncountable nouns. Could you bring the water and the apples? or Could you bring some water and some apples? Both work well. The nuance of difference is so slight here as to not matter. There is a slight nuance. If I use ‘the’, I’m implying either that my audience and I have already agreed there should be water and apples or that I have decided this and am assuming that my audience will agree with me, or be obliged to agree with me. Not enough to worry about unless you are in a situation where slight nuances do matter. ‘The’ signals something definite and specific, and ‘some’ any that come to hand. If in your thesis, you have already mentioned nouns, including abstract nouns, it’s slightly stronger to use ‘the’ rather than some when mentioning the same nouns again.

Are there rules about when to use articles and when they are not required? Well, this is takes you into a grey zone where decisions can be tricky; often when I suggest changes to doctoral writing it is around just this point. Some uncountable nouns don’t usually take an article: We chose icecream for dessert is a concrete example. And then, countable nouns don’t take an article when you are not being specific: We added strawberries. If the audience had already been told what was on the menu, then you’d probably use ‘the’ for both icecream and strawberries. Does that menu talk use of ‘the’—‘I’ll have the fish’—apply to items already mentioned in a thesis?

Turning these rules to the complex abstract nouns of doctoral writing

A colleague, Dr Jenny Jones, gave me material to help with this task. Harrison, Jakeman and Paterson (2012, p. 28) clarify very helpfully that you ‘don’t use “the” when you are generalising or talking about abstract concepts’. So if you are talking about research in general, ‘Research shows that…’, you do not use ‘the’, whereas if you are giving a few sentences to a specific research project, you would use ‘the’ to acknowledge the specificity: ‘The research also found that….’

An example of generalising nouns without articles would be ‘Theses by publication call for different writing strategies than theses that are monographs.’ Examples of abstract concepts without articles might be ‘Success following thesis submission is usual; failure is usually due to non-completion.’

Then Harrison, Jakeman and Paterson (2012, p. 28) rephrase the rules by noting that ‘the’ is not used with plural nouns when it is understood which particular ones you mean: ‘Readers find a lack of structure difficult to navigate’ would not take the article if it is understood you mean the readers of the thesis. However, they note (p. 29) that ‘the’ can be used when ‘the noun is followed by a phrase explaining or specifying which one or ones are being described, as in the example ‘The readers who have to examine the thesis are often working late at night.’ Grammatically, the sentence works with or without ‘the’, but putting it in also puts subtle emphasis on the specificity of which readers you mean. That can help clarity.

Jenny also shared a link to a decision tree that the Center for Writing at the University of Minnesota produced: it is hugely and practically helpful. And it acts as a good reminder as to just how hard it is to make decisions with each tricky incident.

I think these points help just a little, and yet overwhelmingly I’m still left with how difficult articles are in the wilds of doctoral writing, and how hard it is to define rules that are always true and that always clarify. I’d love help with this task if you know of other good resources or suggestions. Please email us if you would like to offer another post on articles with abstract nouns.