The definite article and the Germanic languages

Although I have learned the English language for “innumerable” hours, I still find difficulty in using properly the definite article “the” in that language. I wonder if this does not apply to the learners of English whose native language belongs to the “Germanic” languages, to which English belongs.

It’s not very difficult for any speaker of a language that has articles. Most Germanic and romance languages are in this category.
The exact use of the article does change in some cases but the main idea of what’s determinate-indeterminate is the same so it’s not really an issue.

Well, when I was learning German, I found that (by and large) the concept of articles was directly transferable from English to German - so I guess it works the other way around too?

(True, there are some minor differences between the languages, but it’s basically the same thing.)

“The operator of the establishment is required to secure a food hygiene manager and then submit details about the opening of the bisiness to a local public health center and the tax office.”

There is no reference to “the” tax office that precedes the sentence I quoted above.
Can you imagine why “public health center” and “tax office” are differently treated?

That’s an interesting question. For me, saying “…a local public health centre…” would be referring to one of several local public health centres which there are. Saying “…the tax office…” implies that there is just one! (In truth there may be many local branch tax offices - but the reference in this latter case seems to be to the central institution as a whole?)

Generally, you use the indefinite article to refer to one person thing from a larger group, and you use the definite article to refer in a particular way to one person or object. However, the definite article can also be used to imply that someone or something is noted or special. For example, if you say “The painter John Constable” that doesn’t mean (of course!) that he is/was the only painter in the world - rather it just singles Constable out as being an especially well known and well respected painter.

Which is more natural?
“New York City Government” or “the New York City Government”?

Is it different from “the New York city government” or “the New York City government”?
In addition to the use of the definite article, capitalization is also very confusing, even if you put aside the cases found in title sentences of newspaper articles.

the government of New York City
the New York City government
New York City’s government

I would say “the government” (But it may depend on the wider context?)

Government and tax office have a determinate article because it’s something that you suppose people already know, they’re in your listeners’ mind.
if you say “the government” it’s clear what you mean, same thing with “tthe tax office”. People won’t ask you “what government?”, “what tax office”, but if you say “the public health center” (with no previous mention) you can expect your listeners to say “Hey, what public health center is that?” Saying “a public health center” tells your listener, it’s one of those, no matter which one.

In general “the” indicates that you expect your listener to know which particular object you’re talking about. It’s as if you said “I’m talking about a government you know (namely, the one that governs this country), I expect you to summon a mental picture of it”. “A/an” means “it’s one of those public centers, I don’t think you know this particular one and it doesn’t really matter if you do know it or not, just picture a generic one”.

In another thread, I argued that there’s some connection between the concept of “determinateness” that governs the use of the determinate article and the use of the Japanese topic particle (wa). Of course, it’s not the same at all, but consider this:
Let’s suppose a conversation in which there’s been no previous mention of the government/tax office, etc. I think it would be possible for you to say the equivalent of “government wa …”. However, consider something like a “public health center”, there are many, so you wouldn’t use the topic particle “public health center wa…” out of the blue. You would only do it after a previous mention, or if you have very definite reasons to believe that your listener has that particular public health center in mind. Am I right?

It’s the same phenomenon in the case of the the/a choice. That’s one reason why you could use the definite article with the public center if you disambiguate it enough for your listener to know exactly which one you mean.
The public health center that’s in Baker Street, you know, next to the Burger King, …”

I didn’t know there was a Burger King next to the public health center. That’s news to me.

You really have to try it! Best in town

Of course, you only snoop around thrift shops.

(Okay, you also keep an eye on where a Silberfuchs might surface.)

I’ve been thinking about this and I think I can clarify a bit what I meant in my last post. Feel free to skip the following if you find it too wordy:
What I think happens is that we, native speakers of languages with articles, develop an intuition of what nouns are “determinate” vs. “indeterminate” in a given context. That helps a lot when learning a language that marks “determinateness”, even if the exact details are different. Just as a Japanese speaker has a very clear intuition of what’s a direct or indirect object because s/he has to indicate them every time. That helps them speak languages that mark those functions, even if they do it very differently (as German or Russian by means of declension, e.g.)

I think that a Japanese speaker can gain a similar intuition by replacing determinateness by “wa-potentiality”. What I mean is this:
For every noun in a sentence, ask yourself whether you could turn it into the topic of the sentence (by marking it with the wa particle) as it is or you’d need some setup or further identification. For example:

  • First case (“wa-potentiality”)
    If you are with someone and a car rushes by, you could talk about it by saying “kuruma wa …”

-Second case (no “wa-potentiality”)
If you want to say something about a car you saw a couple of days ago when your listener wasn’t present, you can’t do that! you have to either mention it first
Kuruma-o mita. Kuruma wa …
or identifiy it more clearly
[whenever] mita kuruma wa…

In the first case (you can use “wa”, there’s wa-potentiality), the car’s determinate
In the second (no “wa potentiality”), the car’s indeterminate

Accordingly, you must (not just “can”) say “the car” in the first case, and “a car” in the second, unless you specify more:

  • First case:
    The car …
  • Second case:
    I saw a car_. The car …
    The car that I saw [whenever], …

I think this simple rule of thumb will give you the relevant basic intuition and will make it easier for you to use articles.
However, keep in mind that being “determinate” doesn’t automatically translate into using “the”, not being “indeterminate” to using “a”. However it’s easier to remember the exceptions if you get this intuition. It is here that different article-using languages differ.

By way of example, in the case of English, the following determinate nouns can’t take “the”:
a) Proper nouns, including names of people and places: John, Mr. Wilson, America, France, … Only a few country names include common nouns and they demand “the”: The United States, The United Kingdom.
b) Abstract nouns, when used a general terms:
Happiness is the most important thing.
Communication is key in a couple
You do use “the” if it’s a special, determinate kind of “happiness”, etc.
The happiness that my family gave me, …
c) Plural nouns used to refer to a whole class/category:
Men are all the same
However, you do use “the” if referring to a part of them:T
The men that are standing next to my office
You can consider these exceptions as so “clearly” determinate that adding the article would be redundant.

There are other, less important exceptions, to the use of articles that you must pay attention too but, again, the main intuition is whether a given noun is or not determinate.

Nnn…I dunno…I can think of a situation where “Mr Wilson” would take the definite article:

A: “Do you know Mr Wilson?”

B: “Let’s see, is that the Mr Wilson who works in your brother’s firm?”

A “No, I’m referring to the Mr Wilson who lives next door to me”

This is completely natural English, in my opinion.

Yes, +Jay. I agree. It’s always possible to twist these rules. This is not maths, it’s language. It’s also possible to use the indeterminate article
I know a Dan Brown

But these are very special, atypical contexts. These are exceptions to the exceptions. I was just trying to give a general rule of thumb.
Notice that if you say
Is that Mr. Wilson, who works…
No, I’m referring to Mr. Wilson, who lives next door

That would be correct! (if slightly less idiomatic). So, by following the rule I gave, you, as a non-native speaker, are safe, even if native speakers break it at times. I do think this kind of rule is helpful, even if it’s not universal. The alternative is to have no points of reference whatsoever.

You can alter the rule to read:
Proper nouns don’t carry the article, except in special cases in which an extra nuance of (in)determinateness may be helpful. In any case, if you never use the article, you’ll be correct.

Yes - you could also say something like “Shakespeare certainly wasn’t a Dan Brown” (!) This may or may not be an insult to Dan Brown depending on which way the ball bounces! :smiley:

As native speakers these things do indeed become completely instinctive. (I guess it’s like Evgeny’s approach to Russian aspects? To him it’s just intuitive and automatic. But learners want to have rules - I can sympathise with that.)

Exactly my point and an example I can certainly relate to

  1. “He never opens up shop on a Sunday.”
  2. “He never opens up the shop on a Sunday.”
  3. “He never opens up a shop on a Sunday.”
    In the first case, it is said that the word “shop” refers to business “activity”.

I think that if you use the expression “the shop” or “a shop”, you might convey a slightly different message.
I wonder if native speakers of German encounter any difficulty in these cases.

Well, here is what I read into those sentences.

“He never opens up shop on a Sunday” is a general statement about how he operates his business. He never does business on Sunday.

“He never opens up the shop on a Sunday” is referring to a particular business location. His store is never open on Sunday.

“He never opens up a shop on a Sunday” sounds like either he has an expanding business in which he has been opening new business locations, or alternately, he has several business locations already open. If he opens a new store, he never does the Grand Opening on a Sunday (although the business itself could otherwise operate on Sundays). Or alternately: He doesn’t operate any of his business locations on Sundays.

Honestly, I wouldn’t worry too much about articles unless or until there is some sort of communication breakdown. If it’s something you’re writing that you’re unsure of, just ask a native!

As far as learning Dutch goes, I’ve never really run into any problems with using definite articles, even though Dutch has TWO definite articles in the singular: het and de. In the plural it is always de. “Neuter” singular nouns take het; all others (whether “masculine” or “feminine”) take de; but all plurals take de. For example, het woord; de woorden (the word; the words); but de auto; de auto’s (the car; the cars). Buried in some grammar book somewhere is an explanation for what makes a word “neuter” or not, but such prescriptions are not much use to the everyday speaker. You just learn the het words as you go along. Also all verkleinwoorden (diminutives) take het, so if you’re not sure about a de noun, like de koelkast (the refrigerator), you can probably get away with calling it het koelkastje, even though that really describes one of those mini refrigerators you find in a hotel or dorm room.

But like you suggested, the fact that I’ve never really run into any problems is probably because I already speak a Germanic language, and after using Dutch for a while, the choice between het and de just becomes intuitive. And even native speakers don’t always get the singular articles het and de right all the time. No wonder they are so fond of verkleinwoorden.

1 Like

I think speakers of languages with articles would not have any particular difficulty here. Some languages would have the variant with no article in this particular case, some won’t, but it’ll be clear for all that in the no-article sentence, no particular “shop” per se is meant but a more general activity.
No article screams “this is not a real, concrete, particular shop”