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Little Things That Make a Big Difference to Your Score: The Articles ‘A’, ‘An’, and ‘The’

Although the TOEFL speaking and writing sections are graded holistically–meaning that you’re scored on the overall quality of your response and don’t lose points for any specific error–it’s important to remember that it’s the little things that add up to the ”overall quality of your response”! In a previous post from this series, I discussed the letter “s” and how important pronouncing it can be. Today, I want to talk about the proper use of articles. Not the kind of articles that you read to prepare for the TOEFL, nothing that advanced. The kind of articles I want to talk about are probably some of the first words you learned in English: “a,” “an,” and “the.”

A lot of you will already be competent at knowing when to use “a” and when to use “an,” but here’s a quick refresher. If the following word begins with a vowel, use “an.” It’s not always that easy, though. When the following word starts with a vowel that sounds like a consonant (think “university,” which sounds like it begins with a y), use “a.” However, if there’s a silent “h,” that annoying quirk of English, use “an.”

“The” is by far the word I see and hear misused most often. It’s such a little word, you wouldn’t think it would produce so much trouble–but it does. Generally, we use “the” when referring to something specific: “Have you seen the dog today?” The absence of “the” isn’t usually as big a problem as using “the” too many times, though. Remember: “The” does not mean “all,” and so when you’re talking about a general situation, as the TOEFL often asks you to, you don’t need to use “the.”

You may be starting to see that you’re using “the” too often. Let’s break it down and look at some specifics. For example, if I want to say that it’s okay for Mary to skip this class because she usually goes regularly, I would say:

“Mary usually goes to class.”

It sounds strange to say that “Mary usually goes to the class” when we’re talking about Mary’s habits in general. However, if we’re talking about Mary missing one particular class, all of a sudden, it’s okay to put “the” back in:

“Mary doesn’t have to go to the class on Friday.”

Other occasions when you may be using too many “the”s include the description of non-countable nouns (those are usually the abstract ones), which don’t take an article. It is correct to say “I love life!” It is not correct to say, “I love the life!” (although the sentiment is still a good one).

As any student of English knows, there are tons of exceptions to every rule, and it can be frustrating to try to learn each case of proper article use one-by-one. The best way to make the correct constructions sound correct to you is to practice them repeatedly. Before you do, however, I suggest Googling the verb, article, and noun you want to use together as a phrase, in quotes. If you search for “eating the chocolate,” for example, you’ll find lots of examples of people eating some specified piece of chocolate–you’re unlikely to find anybody who loves “eating the chocolate,” though. Listen and read native speakers of English until the patterns start to sound correct. I promise they will!


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