PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Advanced English Grammar for ESL Learners (2011)
3 Articles and quantifiers
This chapter focuses on two types of noun modifiers that are very troublesome for nonnative speakers: (1) articles and (2) quantifiers.
Articles and quantifiers are types of determiners, a collective term for all noun modifiers that precede adjectives. There are four types of determiners: articles, possessives, demonstratives, and quantifiers:
This chapter focuses on the two types of determiners that are most likely to cause you problems: (1) articles and (2) quantifiers. Here is an example of each type:
Articles and quantifiers are different from adjectives and other determiners in that the choice of article and quantifier is determined in part by whether the noun being modified is count or noncount. (Neither possessives nor demonstratives are affected by this distinction.)
Most common nouns are count nouns, that is, they can be used with number words like one, two, three, and the nouns can be used in either the singular or the plural. For example the nouns book and woman are count nouns:
one book, two books, three books
one woman, two women, three women
Note that even nouns like deer and fish that have no distinct plural forms are still count nouns:
one deer, two deer, three deer
one fish, two fish, three fish
We can also see that irregular nouns like deer and fish have both singular and plural uses by whether the singular or plural verb form is used. For example, using the noun deer as a subject, we can see the verb be changes form, from singular to plural, in agreement with the number of the subject:
English has a large number of noncount nouns. These nouns cannot be used with number words. Here are some examples with the noncount nouns luck, air, and butter:
X one luck, two lucks, three lucks
X one air, two airs, three airs
X one butter, two butters, three butters
Noncount nouns are always used in agreement with singular verb forms, for example:
Luck has not been good to me lately.
Warm air carries more moisture than dry air.
Butter is probably better for you than margarine.
The fact that these nouns agree with singular verbs does not mean that the nouns are singular in meaning. They are neither singular nor plural in meaning; they stand outside the concept of number altogether.
Chapter 1, “Noun plurals,” contains a detailed discussion of noncount nouns. Repeated below for your convenience is the key chart that lists the most common types of noncount nouns.
Most noncount nouns fall into one of the ten semantic categories listed below:
Note: Despite the final -s, economics and physics are singular.
There are two types of articles: definite and indefinite.
Using the definite article
The definite article is the. The definite article can be used with all types of common nouns: singular, plural, and noncount. For example:
The definite article is easy to use since it does not change form. The hard part is knowing WHEN to use it.
Use the definite article only if BOTH of the following conditions are met:
You have a specific person, place, thing, or idea in mind, and
You can reasonably assume that the reader or listener will know which specific person, place, thing, or idea you mean.
The second of these two conditions is usually met in one of the following four ways:
1. Previous mention. Use the definite article with a noun if you have already introduced the noun to the reader or listener. For example:
I just heard about Tom’s accident. Do you know when the accident happened?
We use the definite article with the noun accident in the second sentence because the noun had already been introduced in the first sentence.
2. Defined by modifiers. Use the definite article with a noun if that noun is followed by modifiers that serve to uniquely define the noun. For example:
The printer that I bought on sale last week turned out to be defective.
Even if the printer has not been mentioned previously, the adjective clause that I bought on sale last week tells the reader or listener which printer is being talked about.
3. Uniqueness. Use the definite article with nouns that refer to things that are one of a kind. For example:
The sun had already set by the time we got home.
There is only one sun, so it is defined by its own uniqueness.
4. Normal expectations. Use the definite article with a noun if that noun is something that we would reasonably expect to find or to occur in the context of the sentence. Here are some examples:
I opened the book and looked at the table of contents. We expect books to have tables of contents.
The laces on my shoes came untied.
We expect shoes to have laces.
I went into my office and turned on the computer. We expect offices to have computers.
State which of the four reasons for using the definite article applies to the definite articles in bold: (1) previous mention, (2) defined by modifiers, (3) uniqueness, or (4) normal expectations. The first question is done as an example.
We were driving in the left lane when we had a fl at tire. (4) normal expectaions
1. We need to deposit all the checks that we received yesterday. _______________________
2. Storms were forming along the equator. _______________________
3. I never found the necklace I bought in Greece. _________________________
4. You should replace the windshield wiper in your car. ________________________________
5. Olympia is the capital of Washington state. _______________________
6. I just got the memo that you sent this morning. ___________________________
7. Are you connected to the Internet? ______________________________
8. They just bought a new boat. They hope to use the boat this summer. ______________________________
9. A waiter I hadn’t seen before handed out the menus.
10. The verbs in most languages distinguish between present and past time. ______________________________
11. His performance was disappointing. I thought the performance lacked conviction. ___________________________________
12. Take the bus that goes down Elm Street. ____________________________________
13. Our kids love to go to Sunset Beach and play in the sand. ________________________________
14. There is a package here for Ms. Brown. Take the package to her office. ______________________________
15. I need to have a doctor look at the mole on my left hand. ______________________________
Using indefinite articles
There are two indefinite articles: a/an (used with singular count nouns) and some (used with plural count nouns and all noncount nouns). Here are some examples:
Singular count nouns
I have a problem.
There is a truck parked in front of our house.
I thought of an answer to the question.
Plural count nouns
I have some problems with that.
There are some trucks parked in front of our house.
I thought of some answers to the question.
Would you like some coffee?
There is some confusion about the time of the meeting.
People need to have some protein every day.
We use indefinite articles in two situations:
1. When we are speaking hypothetically or in general terms and do not have a specific noun in mind, or more commonly
2. When we have a specific noun in mind but know that the listener or reader cannot possibly know which noun it is.
Here is an example of the first situation:
When you fly these days, you have to expect some delays.
In this example, the speaker does not have any specific delay in mind because the speaker is talking hypothetically about all airplane travel.
More often, however, we use indefinite articles to signal to readers or listeners that we do not expect them to know which noun we are talking about. Here are some examples:
I would like you to meet a friend of mine. (singular count noun)
I would like you to meet some friends of mine. (plural count noun)
I need to get some information from you. (noncount noun)
The speaker of these sentences uses the indefinite articles because the speaker knows that the audience cannot possibly know which friend or friends the speaker has in mind.
Fill in the blank with the appropriate indefinite article: a/an or some. The first question is done as an example. Remember, a is used before consonant sounds and an is used before vowel sounds.
He made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.
1. The forecast is for _______________________ rain tonight.
2. There was ____________________ note on my desk.
3. I noticed that ____________________ page was missing from the report.
4. I noticed that __________________________ pages were missing from the report.
5. In __________________ circumstances, it would be OK.
6. You need to make ____________________ reservation as soon as possible.
7. The lawyer gave her _________________________ advice about drafting her will.
8. It is only _________________ suggestion.
9. There was _______________ disappointment at the inconclusive outcome.
10. We have finally made _______________________ progress in resolving the dispute.
Some is used without restriction with both plural nouns and noncount nouns in positive statements:
We had to get some new maps for the trip.
There are some apples in the refrigerator.
The committee had some disagreement about the final wording.
There is some fruit in the refrigerator.
However, in negative statements, any is used in place of some:
We didn’t have to get any new maps for the trip.
There aren’t any apples in the refrigerator.
The committee didn’t have any disagreement about the final wording.
There isn’t any fruit in the refrigerator.
The use of some in negative statements is ungrammatical:
X We didn’t have to get some new maps for the trip.
X There aren’t some apples in the refrigerator.
X The committee didn’t have some disagreement about the final wording.
X There isn’t some fruit in the refrigerator.
Use some or any as appropriate in the following positive and negative statements. The first question is done as an example.
There aren’t any meetings scheduled for Friday afternoon.
1. ___________________ reporters are beginning to ask questions.
2. He certainly didn’t show _________________ concern about the outcome.
3. _____________________ rice always sticks to the bottom of the cooking pot.
4. The store didn’t have ________________ brown rice.
5. There are __________________ big mountains to the west of here.
6. I certainly didn’t receive _____________________ encouragement to go ahead.
7. __________________ responses were quite favorable.
8. I didn’t like ____________________ choices that were open to us.
9. We need to get _________________ gas before we leave town.
10. We won’t be able to get ___________________ gas before we reach Albuquerque.
Some and any can both be used in questions, but with different implications. Some has the implication that there will be a positive response to the question. Some is also used as a polite invitation to do something. Any is much more neutral; the speaker is not necessarily anticipating a positive response. Here are two examples that illustrate the difference:
Would you like some coffee? (Waiter asking a customer in a restaurant)
Do you have any maps of France? (Customer asking a clerk in a bookstore)
In the first question, the waiter uses some in part because the waiter can reasonably assume that the answer to the question will be positive and in part as a polite encouragement for the customer to have more coffee.
In the second question, the customer uses any rather than some to signal that he genuinely does not know if the store carries maps of France or not. In other words, the customer does not necessarily expect a positive answer. Now suppose the customer in the bookstore asked the question this way:
Could I see some maps of France?
In this question, the customer is expressing an expectation that the store does actually have maps of France and that the answer will be positive.
The same set of expectations holds for negative questions. Some tends to anticipate a positive response, while any is more neutral. To see the difference, compare the following two negative questions asked of a child by a parent:
Don’t you have some homework?
Don’t you have any homework?
The use of some in the first question assumes a positive response (so much so that this is virtually a rhetorical question). The use of any in the second question implies that the parent genuinely does not know whether or not the child has homework to do.
Use some or any as appropriate to whether the speaker’s expectation is positive or neutral. The first question is done as an example.
(neutral) Do you think any flights have been canceled?
1. (positive) Aren’t there ________________ clean shirts in the closet?
2. (neutral) Did he show __________________ remorse for what he had done?
3. (neutral) Did you form ________________ impression of the judge’s response?
4. (positive) Could they have made __________________ errors in recording the data?
5. (neutral) Do you have ____________ idea about what happened?
6. (neutral) Were _____________ passengers injured in the accident?
7. (positive) Aren’t _______________ games more important than others?
8. (neutral) Have _________________ ballots been challenged by the observers?
9. (neutral) Do _______________ passenger trains stop at that station anymore?
10. (positive) Don’t _____________ professors still grade on a curve?
Turn the first five sentences into questions and the second five sentences into negative statements. In both questions and negative statements, assume a positive expectation using any. The first question is done as an example.
There was some criticism of the proposal.
Was there any criticism of the proposal?
1. They came to some agreement about the contract.
2. Some cars got stuck in the snow.
3. There are some direct flights left.
4. He ordered some soup.
5. There was some frost during the night.
6. She had some congestion this morning.
7. They will take some time off.
8. There are some apartments available.
9. I saw some empty boxes at the grocery store.
10. I have had some pain in my wrist.
Making categorical statements without any articles
Common nouns are so often modified by articles or other determiners that we might conclude that articles or other determiners are obligatory with common nouns. They are with one major exception: when we want to talk about something as a whole category rather than as an individual member of that category. We do this by using noncount nouns or plural count nouns without articles or any other kind of determiners.
Compare the following sentences that use the same noncount noun wood:
The wood on the deck needs refinishing.
We are going to need some wood.
Wood is usually more expensive than plastic.
In the first sentence, the use of the definite article the signals that the audience of this sentence knows which wood the speaker is talking about—the wood on a particular deck.
In the second sentence, the use of the indefinite article some signals that the topic of wood is being introduced for the first time and that the audience of the sentence isn’t expected to already know which specific wood the speaker has in mind.
In the third sentence, the absence of any article modifying the noun wood means that the speaker is talking in general terms about wood as a category of materials.
Here is another example:
The textbooks for my chemistry class are really expensive.
Textbooks are really expensive.
In the first sentence, the noun textbooks refers only to the textbooks required for the speaker’s chemistry class. However, in the second sentence, the speaker is using the noun textbooks in a completely different way: to make a generalization about the category of textbooks as a whole, not any particular group of textbooks.
We often use noncount nouns and plural count nouns without articles or other determiners in a second way: to identify a particular category of things (as opposed to other comparable categories), but not with the intention of generalizing about them. For example, a traffic sign may use a plural count noun to identify a category:
The speed limit for trucks is 65 miles per hour.
The sign identifi es a category of vehicles (trucks) without any further generalization about the nature of all trucks.
In the space provided after the sentence, identify the nouns in bold as either categorical or noncategorical. The first two questions are done as examples:
I think that airports are getting more crowded every day. categorical
All the airports near us are impossibly crowded. noncategorical
1. At midday, some sunshine was getting through the clouds. _______________
2. Sunshine had bleached the old curtains until they were nearly white. ______________
3. Bridges are always the most expensive part of road building. _________________
4. The instructor said that assignments were due every Monday. __________________
5. I couldn’t finish the last assignment. _______________
6. Engines often overheat on long trips through the desert. __________________
7. In real estate, location is everything. _________________
8. The company was looking for a new location for the plant. __________________
9. There is a freeze on new hiring. _______________________
10. Success has a thousand fathers, while failure is an orphan. __________________
Recognizing when nouns are being used to make categorical statements is key to using articles correctly. Here are two important characteristics of sentences that will help you recognize categorical statements:
1. Present tense. Categorical statements are almost always in the present tense because the present tense in English (unlike many languages) is essentially timeless. It is the tense we use to make generalizations. Accordingly, categorical statements will normally be in the simple present, the present progressive, or the present perfect. For example:
Plural count nouns
2. Adverbs of frequency. Sentences that contain categorical statements often use adverbs of frequency such as the following: always, generally, frequently, often, and usually, plus the negative adverbs rarely and never. Note the underlined adverbs of frequency in the following sentences with categorical statements:
Comedy always gets a bigger audience than tragedy.
Criticism is rarely welcomed by the recipient.
Plural count nouns
Highways are usually maintained by gas taxes.
Mosquitoes are frequently a problem during the cooler parts of the day.
If a noun is categorical put a Ø in the space in front of the noun. If a noun is an indefinite noncategorical noun, put the appropriate article a/an or some in the blank space. (Note: For the purpose of this exercise, we will ignore the definite article the.) The first two questions have been done for you.
Getting enough Ø rest is a big problem when I travel.
Did you get an e-mail from Louise?
1. We need ____________________answer as soon as possible.
2. I have completely stopped eating ____________________ cheese because it has so many calories.
3. I had to throw ____________________ cheese away because it had gotten moldy.
4. ____________________ live performances are always more exciting than studio recordings.
5. ____________________ TV channels came in quite clearly.
6. I have always loved ____________________ traveling.
7. ____________________ conferences are always held in the spring and fall.
8. We eliminated ____________________ locations as unsuitable.
9. ____________________ sea birds rarely migrate.
10. Could you get me ____________________ glass of water, please?
Summary: Choosing the right article
Anytime you use an article with a common noun in English, you must make some complicated decisions in order to pick the right one. You must take into consideration two things:
1. The WAY the article is being used. Is the article being used to signal that the noun is known to the hearer (definite article the); that the noun is not known to the hearer (the indefinite articles a/an or some); or that the noun is being used to make a categorical statement (no article)?
2. The TYPE of noun it is. Is it a singular count, a plural count, or a noncount noun?
The term quantifier refers to a number of pre-adjective noun modifiers (meaning they are placed before any adjectives) that express amount or degree. This section refers only to three sets of quantifiers that are affected by whether the noun being modified is count or noncount:
1. many / much (a lot of)
2. few / little
3. fewer / less
Many / much (a lot of)
Many is used only with plural count nouns; much is used only with noncount nouns:
Plural count nouns
His proposal has raised many issues.
There were many magazines in the doctor’s office.
Many can be used in both questions and negative statements:
Did his proposal raise many issues?
Were there many magazines in the doctor’s office?
His proposal did not raise many issues.
There were not many magazines in the doctor’s office.
There has been much confusion about the time of the meeting.
It took much effort to finish the job on time.
While much is grammatical in positive statements, it often has an overly formal, old-fashioned feeling to it. In conversation, native speakers are much more likely to use a lot of instead of much in positive statements:
There has been a lot of confusion about the time of the meeting.
It took a lot of effort to finish the job on time.
In questions and negative statements, much and a lot of are used interchangeably:
Has there been much / a lot of confusion about the time of the meeting?
Did it take much / a lot of effort to finish the job on time?
There hasn’t been much / a lot of confusion about the time of the meeting.
It didn’t take much/ a lot of effort to finish the job.
Fill in the blanks with many or much. In positive statements, use a lot of instead of much when modifying noncount nouns. The first question is done as an example.
Is there much information about this on the Web?
1. We didn’t see ____________________ ducks on the pond.
2. We don’t have ____________________ coffee left.
3. Not ____________________ high schools have tennis teams anymore.
4. There are ____________________ flu cases going around this winter.
5. I don’t have ____________________ patience with his problems.
6. The garage doesn’t keep ____________________ replacement parts on hand.
7. Do you get ____________________ snow in the winter?
8. Their actions have caused ____________________ grief for everyone.
9. We need to focus. There isn’t ____________________ time.
10. There is ____________________ concern about this issue.
Few / little
Few is used only with plural count nouns; little is used only with noncount nouns:
Plural count nouns
Few mosquitoes around here carry malaria.
Few computers have adequate protection from spam.
We have had little information about what happened.
There was little public notice of the government’s action.
However, for both plural count and noncount nouns, we normally use any rather than either few or little in questions and negative statements:
Do any mosquitoes around here carry malaria?
Do any computers have adequate protection from spam?
We have not had any information about what happened.
There wasn’t any public notice of the government’s action.
Fill in the blanks with few or little as appropriate in positive statements. Use any for questions and negative statements. The first question is done as an example.
It was pretty late, so few cars were on the road.
1. The medication provided ____________________ relief from the pain.
2. Are ____________________ judges up for reelection this year?
3. ____________________ buildings had been damaged in the earthquake.
4. I had ____________________ confidence in the outcome of the election.
5. We didn’t have ____________________ food left over after the picnic.
6. Please don’t take ____________________ pictures during the performance.
7. Unfortunately, there is ____________________ assistance for the handicapped at the site.
8. We were delayed because there weren’t ____________________ pilots available for our flight.
9. I took ____________________ pride in the way I behaved.
10. Are there ____________________ messages for me?
Fewer / less
Like few and little, the comparative form fewer is used with plural count nouns and less is used with noncount nouns:
Plural count nouns
Barbara is raising fewer sheep this year.
They are spending fewer summers at the lake than they used to.
There is less traffic on the roads since the rail line was opened.
He lost less weight this week.
However, unlike few and little, both fewer and less can be used in questions and negative statements. Their usage depends on whether they modify count or noncount nouns:
Is Barbara raising fewer sheep this year?
Are they spending fewer summers at the lake than they used to?
Is there less traffic on the roads since the rail line was opened?
Did he lose less weight this week?
Barbara is not raising fewer sheep this year.
They are not spending fewer summers at the lake than they used to.
There isn’t less traffic on the roads since the rail line was opened.
He didn’t lose less weight this week.
Fill in the blanks with fewer and less as appropriate. The first question is done as an example.
Building the house took less lumber than we had expected.
1. There is ____________________ pressure in my new job.
2. The company has ____________________ job openings than before.
3. Does the revised plan have _________________ floor space?
4. We don’t have ____________________ paperwork than we did before we got computers.
5. There is ____________________ inflation than the government predicted.
6. ____________________ accidents mean lower insurance rates.
7. The side entryway has ____________________ steps to climb.
8. The job took ____________________ time than we had expected.
9. Smoking causes ____________________ deaths than before.
10. Since we remodeled, there is ____________________ light in the kitchen.