Getting to know definite and indefinite articles

English is a funny language. (That’s funny as in weird, not funny as in ha-ha.) We sometimes use articles in front of words, and we sometimes don’t. Depending on what we do, the meaning can change. But when we use articles at all, it follows few rules.

“She scored little above average on the IQ test” is a lot different from “she scored a little above average on the IQ test.” The first is more derisive, more insulting, implying she could barely eke out an average score. The second, with the article “a,” puts her in the top half, even though just barely.

The article “a” is an “indefinite article,” meaning it could refer to many things of its kind. If you plan to go to an animal shelter, you might say “I’m going to get a dog.” But if you already have a dog and you say “I’m going to get the dog,” you are being definitive about which dog you going to get. So you use the definite article “the.”

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We used to say “the Ukraine,” “the Sudan,” and “the Congo,” but that was when they were attached to other countries. Now, according to the CIA World Factbook, the only nations with “the” in front of their names are “The Gambia” and The Bahamas.” (OK, so it’s “Democratic Republic of the Congo” and “Republic of the Congo,” but the “the” is no longer at the front.) And it’s just “United States,” according to the CIA Factbook.

Over at the U.N., only a few member nations get “the” in front of their names. One is “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” which in 2006 split from Serbia, which itself had split from what the U.N. refers to as “The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” in 1992. “The Gambia” is “Gambia, (Republic of The)” at the U.N., but “Bahamas” loses its article completely. Our nation is “United States of America,” still without its “the.”

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So why do we say “the United States,” “the United Kingdom,” and “the Russian Federation,” but not “the Britain” or “the Russia”?

That’s the funny part of English. As the BBC wrote in 2012, we seem to automatically put the definite “the” in front of compound nouns and adjectives like “the United States.” We often put “the” in front of a definitive geographical feature, like “the Sahara” or “the Alps,” and we usually do that with deserts, mountain ranges and rivers. And the people of a country are always definite, as in “the British” and “the Russians.” But we’re not consistent. We love “the ballet” and go to “the movies,” but we might “watch TV or “watch the TV.”

Whether to capitalize “the” is usually a matter of style. The Associated Press says to capitalize “the” in front of a newspaper name only when the newspaper so prefers; New York Times style says: “For consistency, capitalize the article in every magazine or journal name commonly written or spoken with an article.” The Chicago Manual of Style goes the opposite way, lowercasing the article before publication names. Unless the publication is not in English, in which case the article should be capitalized, as in El País or Al-Akhbar. Sigh. (CJR looks to the publication’s nameplate for guidance.)

It’s also a matter of style, not accuracy, whether to follow the capitalization preferred by an entity, like “The Ohio State” or “The Who.” But every stylebook says it’s “The Hague.” Sigh.

The British drop some articles we don’t. Someone is “in hospital” in common British English; we make it definite, saying they are “in the hospital.” But someone is “in jail,” no article needed, in British and American English (though the Brits might spell it “gaol”).

Now comes the fun part, If the noun begins with a vowel or a vowel sound, the indefinite article becomes “an,” as in “an apple.” If you don’t pronounce (aspirate) the “h” in a word like “hour,” you want “an hour,” not “a hour.” But if you aspirate the “h” in a word like “howitzer,” you go back to “a howitzer.” That’s why it’s “a historic moment,” not “an historic moment.” You can have “a herb” or “an herb,” depending on whether you pronounce the “h.”

And that’s also why it’s “a New York University student” but “an NYU student.” Even though the letter “N” is a consonant, its pronunciation begins with a vowel sound.

So let’s be definite about this. As Bryan A. Garner wrote in Garner’s Modern English Usage, “Anyone who sounds the h– in words of the type here discussed should avoid pretense and use a. An humanitarian is, judged even by the most tolerant standards, a pretentious humanitarian.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.