So … what’s the point of articles? The best way to think of them is like the indicator lights on your car. You use these to communicate three things: that you’re about to turn left, that you’re about to turn right, or that you’re planning to go straight on (signalled by not using the lights).
There are three ways that this is a useful analogy. Firstly, think back to when you were learning to drive. Indicators were the easiest thing to forget. It was easy enough to use the steering wheel, and the pedals and gears were complicated but learnable. But when you’re concentrating on all those things, who has time to think about indicators?
Do they allow you to go faster? No. Do they make your life as a driver easier in any way? No. So what’s the point? If you think back to Dorota’s question in part 1, these were basically the same questions that she asked about articles.
The answer to both questions, of course, is that indicators and articles aren’t there to help you, the driver / speaker. They’re there for the other drivers / listeners who have to work out your intentions and avoid crashes. I’ll explain this in much more detail as the series progresses.
Secondly, as I’ve just mentioned, non-use of indicator lights communicates an important message. In the same way, non-use of articles often communicates something very specific. That’s why we talk about three articles in English: a/an, the and Ø, where Ø is the zero article, i.e. the absence of an article.
Thirdly, when we’re learning to drive, it doesn’t really matter if we forget to use indicators from time to time. We’re driving slowly enough, and there’s a big letter L on top of the car telling other drivers to expect us to make mistakes, and to take care around us. Learner English speakers don’t have L- plates, but they do tend to speak slowly and have quite strong accents, so it doesn’t really matter if they don’t use articles.
But think back to Dorota – she was extremely fluent and natural-sounding in English, so her non-use of articles was much more of a problem – like driving at 100 km/h with no indicators.
Actually, it’s worse than that. Here’s a summary of the main message communicated by each article and each indicator:
OK, so that’s the theory. I’ll bring this much more down to earth in part 3.
To be continued ...