Quora Q&A – Articles
Do Russians lack definite articles since they forget to use “the” a lot of times when they speak English?
Russians don’t forget to use them, they just do not really understand how to use them properly. Because as it was already mentioned here, there are no articles in the Russian language.
Here are some examples of how weird it is for us to grasp the rules:
Why do you say the Middle East, but Central Asia (zero article)? Both are modified by an adjective and could be understood as a specific place on the map, and even though it is just Central Asia and not the Central Asia.
Why did people use to say the Ukraine before and now they call it just Ukraine? I heard a theory that it is so because it was a part of Russia before and now Ukraine is an independent state. But why then… (see n.3).
… why do you say Siberia, but not the Siberia, even if it is a part of Russia?
Why do you say like ‘Germany has a population of 82.5 million’, but on the other hand ‘The population of Germany is 82.5 million’? There is one and only population in Germany, and it is specified by a particular number, but it is still a population in the first sentence.
I could extend the list even more. The answer ‘there are rules which must be memorized’ is not acceptable, because we sometimes just do not understand the logic.
Rapid English Answers
I’ve been teaching this concept for many years to Russian, Baltic, and Polish speakers, and have a system worked out that basically always works, because, I think it reflects the essential truth of the situation, and will answer Pavel’s questions.
There are two separations you have to learn to make between types of NOUNS. The first is between general/imaginary/idea/category nouns and particular/concrete/real/actual nouns, and the second between nouns that are defined an undefined to the listener. The first separation will tell you if you should use an article or not at all, and the second will tell you which article you should use: A or THE.
We don’t use articles for general nouns. For example, “Trees have leaves” or “Cars have wheels” or “Happiness is fleeting”. Trees, leaves, cars, wheels, and happiness are all given without articles because they refer to categories things, the ideas of types of things, types of things in general rather than particular instances of things, examples, cases, real ones, etc. of those nouns.
On the other hand non-general particular concrete nouns need articles – you can’t talk about a particular concrete noun without using an article. If I want to talk about “a particular car that is parked in the parking lot near the apartment I’m living in”, for example, I need to call the car A car, the parking lot THE parking lot, and the apartment THE apartment. These are all real things, so they need articles. Why the ones given though? Why A before car, THE before parking lot, and THE before flat? We use THE when a real thing is DEFINED to the listener, meaning that they have at least SOME context that lets them understand WHICH ONE(S) of something a speaker is talking about. The LISTENER – context to the listener.
And we use A for everything else – when there’s no context to the listener. It was A car because it was just some random car to you that you had no previous context for. If I were to mention it again in the same conversation, I would then call it THE car because I would have already mentioned it and this would have given you context enabling you to understand somehow WHICH ONE(S) I meant.
Let’s think about the apartment next. This is defined to you because I defined it (gave you context for understanding WHICH ONE) it was in the same sentence “that I live in”. The parking lot is similarly given context (defined) by “near the apartment that I live in”. If we were going to get deeper into this topic, we would want to think about the main ways that listeners can have context that enables and necessitates the use of THE, an intuitive way for understanding A, and words with essentially the same meanings as A and THE that can be used instead of them and communicate the same meanings that a noun is either general or particular and defined and undefined. But that’s for another day (or for you to learn about on my website.
For now, let’s answer Pavel’s questions using these principles. 1) The Middle East and Central Asia. – Well, ok, I didn’t mention, but it’s pretty clear I think to most people that names USUALLY don’t have articles. We wouldn’t say THE Pavel, right? The interesting question is when they have articles, why? Why is it the US, the UK, the Netherlands, the Ukraine and just Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Brazil, etc? We use articles in names when they are made up of multiple words that have their own meanings and aren’t just sounds we use for names, like Pavel. What does Pavel mean? What does ASIA mean? But EAST means something. MIDDLE means something. By the way this East is a particular concrete place on this earth, so if we think about our first separation from our rules above, we need some article. Next, considering that we also have the word Middle in the name, is it just some random Middle East of many possible Middle Easts or do these two words together give us enough context to understand which East place it is? Obviously yes, so since it is particular and defined it is THE. The United States – real states, defined by the word United. The United Kingdom – a real kingdom, defined again by United. The Netherlands – real lands defined by the first part of the word, Nether, which means lower. The Ukraine – means borderlands – real lands, defined by border. Regarding Central Asia, Asia is just a name. Narrowing it down to Central, doesn’t require an article. We need articles for things, and never for names. Eastern Kentucky, Middle England, Lower Saxony, etc follow this same principle. 2) the Ukraine – see treatment in 1). 3) Siberia, just a name without any independent meaning – see 1). 4) A population because it is a real population, but at the moment it is introduced it is just one of many possible populations, with no prior context – if it is mentioned again, it will be as THE population. The population of Germany on the other hand is defined in the same sentence by “of Germany”. Hope this helps. You can find more like this on my website https://rapidenglish.me.