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bob_'s avatar

Why do non-native English speakers sometimes omit articles?

Asked by bob_ (19256 points ) December 14th, 2010

Have you noticed this? You hear a guy with an accent speaking in English, and every now and then an article goes missing. I’ve seen (or, well, heard) it happen to people from different backgrounds (Mexican, Russian, German, etc.). Why does this happen? It’s not like we don’t know how to speak the language: whenever this happens to me (I’m a native Spanish speaker), I notice it right away, and it never happens when I’m writing instead of speaking.

My theory is that we focus on getting the most important words (i.e., the nouns) when we’re “translating” our thoughts, so sometimes an article gets lost in translation. What’s your theory?

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42 Answers

CyanoticWasp's avatar

I think your theory is correct one.

AmWiser's avatar

Okay @bob_ you answered your own question. I would surmise that is why an article might go missing. Then on the other hand when non-native english speakers are talking, I try to concentrate on what they are trying to say and not how they are actually saying it.

bob_'s avatar

@AmWiser I gave my theory, others might have a different opinion. A linguist friend of mine thought it had to do with cultural differences.

AmWiser's avatar

@bob_ your friend may have a point. I like and agree with your theory better.;-)

wundayatta's avatar

Well, Russian doesn’t use articles, so when they try to speak English, they often omit them. I don’t know about the other languages. Maybe it has to do with other languages having gender and English does not have it (for nouns). So maybe they are thinking what’s the point?

gambitking's avatar

Honestly I think this is also, at least in part, a product of the information age and the internet.

I think the advent of email alone changed the way EVERYONE communicates, not just ESL (English as a Second Language) speakers. Before, in a letter we would write all sorts of pleasantries, use long descriptive sentences and take every effort to use proper punctuation, spelling, grammar and eschew acronyms.

Look at us now! Not only do we shoot off tons of terse, super-concise emails without regard to capital letters, punctuation and other formalities, we are even less detailed about it in Instant Messaging and Texting.

I remember in the days of pagers, even, when “1 4 3” meant “I Love You”. I work every day with web developers (via instant messaging) in other countries, whose English skills are decent, but still typical of an ESL speaker. And the omission of articles is commonplace. I think at this point, the reason is more about efficiency and the byproducts of super-fast communication. I found myself even omitting so called ‘needless words’ just to get to the point.

In closing…....
“Omit needless words.” – E.B. White, Rule #17 , Elements of Style

HearTheSilence's avatar

I would say its due to the fact other languages use articles (such as the) to define the sex of things. You speak Spanish so I’ll use that as an example, la mesa, el lapis… if you don’t know the sex of things you then take out the article all together so as to avoid looking worse. My parents do it all the time, my father makes up words of his own, it’s just barriers that people are attempting to cross. American Sign Language doesn’t use articles at all, so they have to learn what feels like a whole new language to them, when they’re writing.

I think your theory is spot on also; when you’re speaking in another language, you’re trying to find the subject, verb, and noun to use that will make people understand you, the last thing on your mind is did I use the right articles.

bob_'s avatar

@gambitking Those are valid points, but I still see instances where there clearly is something else going on. To give you a concrete example, I was listening to a presentation, in English, by a German executive. He spoke the language impeccably, except for a few articles that were omited every now and then (which was not the case for the other, American, speakers).

LostInParadise's avatar

Interesting question, especially since articles are simpler in English than in most other languages. There is just a/an and the. There is no distinction based on gender or singular versus plural. I wonder if native English speakers do the same thing when speaking a foreign language.

HearTheSilence's avatar

@LostInParadise When I speak in German I omit a lot of articles, simply because they have what seems like 14 different ways to say the. It’s a pain to remember them all and use them properly. Now in Italian I don’t tend to leave them out, at least I’ve never noticed if I have. It’s possible that we’re directly translating our thoughts and thus miss articles because in the persons native tongue, you wouldn’t use an article in that part of the sentence.

the100thmonkey's avatar

Russian doesn’t ‘do’ articles, if I recall correctly.

The same is true for Japanese – the language employs a totally different system for reference, coherence and cohesion that employs topic markers to indicate the topic of conversation.

With such different systems, it’s no surprise that learners consistently have difficulties with the reference systems of separate languages. I’d also suggest that the consequences of a mistake with articles are minimal in that, in my experience, they don’t impede communication. Because of this, learners don’t improve on the area because it’s not perceived as a problem, either by the learner or the parts of their brains associated with learning.

Jeruba's avatar

If the person’s native language lacks articles, I think getting the idea of articles is difficult. But even if it doesn’t, the use of articles is very idiomatic and tends to stump even the most fluent speaker of English as a second language. A person who has been here for decades and continued to strive for mastery (as opposed to the many who learned just enough to communicate and then quit working on it) and who has all but eradicated an accent will still give himself or herself away by using or omitting articles in a way that a native speaker never would.

And then of course we have certain differences between British and American use of articles, just to add to the confusion.

So my theory is that omitting articles doesn’t seem any worse than getting them wrong, and it’s much easier.

It’s even possible that some students have been told not to bother with them. I remember reading an article about students of English who were taking an accent improvement course. The interviewer asked them about their practice of English, and one student said that their teacher had told them not to bother to learn any tense of verbs but the present (and probably not even the third-person singular) because they could get by with that. Maybe some teachers say the same thing about articles: don’t bother. The native speakers will figure out what you mean.

My mother taught ESL students at the college level for many years, and she always said that articles seemed to be the most difficult to grasp for students of every language group. She wrote a detailed guide for her students just on the use of “the.”

seazen's avatar

@Jeruba Do you have the guide handy? I could use it.

bob_'s avatar

@Jeruba Why do you think it’s so difficult to become fully familiarized with the “idiomaticness” of the use of articles?

When I was talking to my linguist friend she mentioned the different uses of “the”, like “the one” as used in The Matrix. A few days later, I told her how somebody in a meeting complimented me on my English, and how I should have replied “thank you, it’s because I took THE English class”.

Jeruba's avatar

@bob_, I have often wanted to know what English really looks like, at a deep level, to an English learner. I can’t put myself there. Not only was I raised by educated people who spoke with a high degree of fluency, grammatical accuracy, and complexity but I had a special affinity for languages myself and took it all in with more than the usual degree of attention. So I can only speculate.

My speculation suggests that our idiomatic use of articles seems tantalizingly close to a system or pattern, so that a learner may feel that he’s got the hang of it, when in fact he can’t really work by analogy or extrapolation; he just about has to work case by case.

No, that’s not even right. Sorry. There are whole classes of things that do work exactly the same way. We don’t really learn them case by case because we can extend known uses to new situations. Maybe it is, rather, that the classifications are more subtle than they seem, and so it’s easy to misclassify and then apply the wrong rule.

What’s more, being English, it is loaded with exceptions, and I believe that some of them are inherited from the languages of origin of which English is an amalgam or by which English was influenced, even though we can’t always trace them back for direct parallels.

Also there is a distinction to be made among meanings of the same noun with and without articles, and we “just know” it—which is what it means for it to be idiomatic. For example, consider the following:

Do you have time?
Do you have the time?
What a time we had!
What a good time we had.
I didn’t know this at the time.
Take them one at a time.
Take time for yourself.
Take your time.
Take the time you need.

Those all mean different things with respect to time, and the articles or absence of them are an essential part of each expression. I can explain some of them logically, in terms of syntax and semantics, but not all of them.

I must add as a disclaimer that this is nothing but my own view, with no special authority behind it. I have not formally studied linguistics; I am erratically self-taught. Someone with a systematic education in the field can probably offer much better explanations than mine.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Don’t forget the cases where the article is used, and shouldn’t be:

Got the milk?

Jeruba's avatar

@CyanoticWasp, I agree, that’s a variant of the same problem. Some English learners do put articles in everywhere and do seem to favor the definite article for that purpose. The question was specifically about omission. But “Got the milk?” is a different question from “Got milk?”

Ivan's avatar

I think you’re right. When I was taking French classes, I would translate a sentence by translating all of the important words, then progressively translate all the less important “filler” words that make a sentence grammatically correct. I imagine that if I were trying to speak fast, I might miss an article here or there.

LostInParadise's avatar

When I studied Spanish, the rules for articles (apart from gender) seemed much the same as in English. I suppose there may be some idiomatic phrases where there might have been a difference, but idioms are special cases apart from the use of articles. @Jeruba‘s phrases involving time are all idiomatic and will have to be mastered as special cases of the use of the word time.

For languages that use articles, is there much variation in how they are used?

bob_'s avatar

@LostInParadise In the case of Spanish, I wouldn’t say the difference is that significant (apart from geneder, as you said), which leads me to my lost-in-translation theory.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

Proably the same as when I attempt some gobble-de-gook sentence in Russian or Spanish- I’m trying to get across my meaning in the fewest actual words I know, conjugation and articles be damned.

Jeruba's avatar

@LostInParadise, when I was studying German I found that articles required a lot of attention. It’s not just that they are declined in three genders and four cases. You also have definite and indefinite articles and must learn when to use each. It’s not a straight parallel with English. For example, in English we usually refer to our own body parts with the possessive pronoun: “Hold my hand,” “Comb your hair,” “He hurt his foot.” In German those nouns would take a definite article instead: the hand, the hair, the foot. You just have to learn it.

Yes, my example phrases are idiomatic. That was my point. And the fact that the meaning is affected by the choice of article.

Brian1946's avatar

I agree with wundayatta and the100thmonkey, in that I’ve noticed article omission when I’ve heard a speaker whose first language is Russian, or perhaps another Slavic language.

My wife’s first language is Spanish, and I’ve never heard her omit an expected article or insert an extraneous one.

Perhaps some see inconsistencies in article usage in English, such as “Let’s go home” and “Let’s go to the house”, and “Let’s go to bed” and “Put your coats on the bed”, etc., and conclude, “If the English language can’t make up its mind, then let’s just concentrate on the more essential parts of the message.”.

Brian1946's avatar

Re: my above post.

“My wife’s first language is Spanish….”

My wife speaks ESL, and I’ve never heard her omit an article when speaking English.

seazen's avatar

Gotta love fluther. Just saying.

JLeslie's avatar

My husband is ESL, first language Spanish, and I have never noticed he has trouble with articles. His father, who did not learn English until he was in his late 50’s, and his English is still quite broken, does not seem to stumble often on articles, his first language was Hebrew and Arabic, then Spanish; Spanish being his primary language in school and throughout his life. For that matter I don’t think I have a problem knowing where to put an article in Spanish, although I do sometimes fail to know the gender of a word. The one exception is I was taught to use an article when speaking about someone, for instance la JLeslie, my husband’s family never uses that, but an exboyfriend from way back, his Ecuadorian family did.

The point made by @Jeruba, all of those sentences about time, and how each one means something different, that is the biggest complaint I hear from ESL people. In English we have one word mean 10 different things. At least in the examples given about the word time, they all have to do with time, if you know what I mean. My husband tells a story about being in the US and reading a sign, Littering, $50 fine. As far as he knew fine meant ok.

Another thing, my husband’s sister, has horrible punctuation when she writes in English. I mean really bad. I once commented that she is ESL, and my husband said, “it isn’t that, her Spanish is just as bad.” So, possibly, since many Hispanic immigrants are poor in their countries, with little formal education (the average education of Mexian immigrants is 8th grade from what I remember) this might affect their command of the English language, if they speak poorly in Spanish also, not unlike poor grammar in our own ghettos, even if they are third generation American. This kind of marries with @Jeruba statement that she was raised by parents who spoke well, and had strong vocabularies. Although, my SIL did finish high school, did a year of college, and some finishing school in Switzerland. But, that all sounds better than in actual practice, school really was not her thing. But, that is another story. Her spoken English is very good though. As good as my husband’s, who only makes a few consistant mistakes in verb tense mostly.

I also agree with the OP’s explanation as being part of the reason people may have trouble with articles. I disagree with the idea that we text more, use shorthand more. Immigrants have had problems with English even before the computer age. I’m sure it doesn’t help, but I don’t think that is the main reason.

Jeruba's avatar

@JLeslie, I like your point about the effect of being well or poorly educated in your native tongue. I think that is a significant factor. When I was working in the field of educational software, I remember reading literature on the hotly debated topic of whether, in teaching primary reading, it’s better to move young ESL kids over into English as quickly as possible or to teach them to read in their first language and then in English. One of the arguments for the latter approach was a study showing that good readers in one language tend to become good readers in another.

Of course, that would place a huge burden on the schools, which are not prepared to accommodate every language group with professional reading teachers in an English-speaking system and society, but that point is unrelated to the issue under study, which was about effectiveness.

JLeslie's avatar

@Jeruba Interesting. I actually am not in favor of ESL accomodations for primary school age students. I think let them suffer a little with total immersion at school. Secondary school I feel differently.

mattbrowne's avatar

In general there are three options when it comes to using articles with nouns:

1) You must use one
2) You must omit the article
3) Both omitting and using one are fine

German and Spanish rely on a similar concept, but for translation this usually isn’t a 1:1 relationship.

Sometimes singular vs. plural becomes an issue too. Example:

Why do I need () scissors to open a packet of scissors? The whole point of buying new scissors is that I don’t have any.

Warum brauche ich eine Schere um eine Tüte mit Scheren zu öffnen? (German)

Scissors are singular in German.

JLeslie's avatar

@mattbrowne Interesting. I think the Spanish would be the same as English for the scissors sentence. Porque necessito tijeras para abrir una paquete de tijeras? But, the OP can correct me if I am wrong. In fact that sentences reminds me that I think prepositions are much more difficult than articles from Spanish to English and vice versa.

In English you could also say, Why do I need a pair of scissors to open a packet of scissors? Also correct.

JLeslie's avatar

Thinking about it more…I think you could use the also. Why do I need the scissors to open a packet of scissors? Maybe @Jeruba can comment if one is more correct than the other. In Spanish I think you might be able to insert the (las) also in the beginning of the sentence? I need @bob_ to comment on it though, my Spanish knowledge is far from perfect. Very far.

bob_'s avatar

@JLeslie Both would work. ”¿Por qué necesito tijeras para abrir un (not “una” XD) paquete de tijeras?”, or ”¿Por qué necesito las tijeras para abrir un paquete de tijeras?”, the difference being that “las tijeras” (or “the scissors”) would refer to a specific pair. Oddly enough, ”¿Por qué necesito unas tijeras?” would sound kind of weird, but the declarative “Necesito unas tijeras” wouldn’t, which reinforces @Jeruba‘s point about idioms.

JLeslie's avatar

@bob_ Thanks. The way I think about it, una means a in English. Unas is simply the agreement with the noun, still meaning a. Now, what is weird in this specific example is I actually grew up using the singular for scissor in English, which is incorrect, but very common in NY. So, I might say, “why do I need a scissor?” But, it is incorrect. “why do I need the scissor?” still incorrect, but correct if we change it to scissors, the scissors. So, I am thinking in English a noun which is plural never has a before it? Is that right? But, singular nouns can sometimes use a and sometimes the or sometimes no article. I have to think about examples. Of course I never think about English this much, and rules associated with the language, because it is simply my first language.

The pants
A shirt, the shirt
The televisions, a television, the television

Right, you cannot use a with a noun that is plural. I think? We would never say a televisions or a pants, but we might say unos pantalones or unas televisiones. Right?

Now, about the prepositions, which is slightly off subject, but I hope you don’t mind. Don’t you find that the trickiest? We used para in the sentence about tijeras, but in the English the sentence of. Para is most directly translated as for in my mind, and of is de. My husband has trouble with in and on, most Spanish speaking people do, because I think en is taught as in and on, when on is closer to encima in my opinion. Even down and out and up. He will say, “fill up the form,” instead of, “fill out the form.” Or, when we are driving and come to our destination, “do you want to get down?” Rather than, “do you want to get out?”

bob_'s avatar

@JLeslie Right, “a” is only for singular. There are no indefinite plural articles in English. And yes, the prepositions are indeed tricky, especially in/on/at. While “encima” is indeed “on”, some times you’d translate “on” as “en”. Even some adjectives can be bothersome: big/large, little/small, to name some examples.

Are you sure he was making a mistake when he asked “do you want to get down?”? XD

JLeslie's avatar

@bob_ :). I think encima is when “on top of” can be used, not to be confused with getting down lol. Like the clothes are on top of the table. We could say the clothes are on the table in English, still correct, but in Spanish would not use en in that sentence. Is that correct? Or, would you say, la ropa esta en la mesa? I’m thinking, la ropa esta encima de la mesa. En is on, when “on top of” cannot be used logically in the Engish sentence? Oy. But, then there are things like on time. Which is “a tiempo” I think? It is amazing I communicate at all with my MIL. We do miscommunicate all too often.

Please forgove my lack of accent marks. I have no idea how to make one on this crazy ipad.

bob_'s avatar

@JLeslie “En la mesa” would not raise any eyebrows. I’d say “sobre la mesa”. “A tiempo” is correct. Communication is indeed rather amazing :)

See here about the accent marks on the iPad.

JLeslie's avatar

Oh yeah. Sobre. Sobre seems very odd to me, but also sounds right to me. Hard to explain. Like I can hear my MIL saying it, but I would never come up with that myself, because sobre means over to me. Flipping prepositions.

I’ll look at your link for the ipad, thanks for that.

JLeslie's avatar

That link was awesome! I cannot believe I had not discovered that before. I still don’t see how to make an upside down question mark? Did you happen to notice?

bob_'s avatar

@JLeslie According to this link, it’s also a matter of holding the key.

JLeslie's avatar

@bob_ I had guessed that, and it had not worked. But now, reading your link, I realized I needed to go to the secondary keyboard, the number keyboard, and that question mark has the options. ¡Super!

bob_'s avatar

Hey, I forgot to mention that I asked for the question to be moved to Social, so if anyone (* looks at @seazen *) feels like cracking some jokes, go right ahead.

seazen's avatar

I got nothing.

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