What’s an article

Hello everyone,

and welcome back to our little series on the most important grammar terms. And today, we’ll take a closer look at one

articles

Now, most people who speak English would immediately think of  the and a, when they hear “article”, and many German learners would experience a visceral reaction, like a surge of anxiety or a slight skin rash. So it’s definitely one of the most wide-known terms.
What’s less clear, though, is the question of what articles are, what they do and what other types of articles there are. And by looking into these things, we’ll learn what’s maybe the most important lesson of today… that grammar terminology is a god damn mess, and no one knows what they’re talking about.
So, are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s go.

One theory about the origin of the term article is that it comes from an ancient High Elvish word “Ar-t’kele” which meant something like “the little companion” and in that sense it also made its way into the epic book of  G‘ram-ar (“the little head-pain”).
That’s just my personal theory, though.
The mainstream theory is that it comes from Latin… yeah… big yawn. It literally meant “little joint” and it was for the small body joints like the finger joint for example. It was also used as a grammar term, but the Latin article was actually something different from a connecting particle. Our definition of article came up more than one and a half thousand years later, when some grammar scholars were naming parts of speech while having some wine…

“So, we now that we have named all the parts of speech, let’s toast to our epic grammar terms.”
“Wait, hold on. What about these little words that hang out with the noun all the time.”
“Oh, right. What did the Romans call those?”
“They… they didn’t have those, actually.”
“Dang it. What do we call them then?”
“How about Noun-Bros?”
“No, not Latin enough. It needs to sound high-brow! I suggest we call them… articles.”
“But articles were something different in Latin and Gre…”
“WHATEVER! No one’s gonna know. Let’s just call them Articles and have a drink.”
“Hooray!”

Me personally, I think Noun-Bros, would have been the better choice but okay. So essentially, grammarians just kind of decided to call these things articles, even though “joint” is not really what I think of when I think of the or a.
Which brings us to the question of what it actually is that articles do.

The function of articles

If we look at German articles with all their endings, it seems that their job is to carry grammatical information about the noun, namely gender, case/role and whether it is singular or plural. 
Because if we look at the English article the, we see that the does a precious little of that grammar stuff.

  • I see the bunny. (singular, direct object)
  • I see the bunnies. (plural, direct object)
  • The bunnies see me. (plural, subject)

Clearly, carrying grammar information about the noun must be an optional side hustle for an article.
The main job is something which I would call “instantiate”. If you’re a programmer, you might actually have an idea of what I mean, but most of us aren’t programmers, so let’s explore this.

In our look at nouns we learned that nouns are basically our names for all kinds of objects. But of course they’re not the name for an individual object. They’re the name for a category of objects. The noun unicorn for instance applies thousands and thousands of these savages roaming our planet. If we want to get more specific, we can of course use nouns for subcategories, like Sea-unicorn or Glacier-unicorn or Tschernobyl-unicorn.
Or we can just add a bunch of qualities to a noun by using adjectives – for example

vegan Sea-unicorn

That’s already SUPER specific because very few unicorns are actually vegan. But technically, this is still just a very specific “entity class”. Maybe there’s just one unit in that class, maybe there’s a hundred. Or maybe there’s none.

And THAT’S where the article comes in because an article specifies what “instance” of that class we put into our sentence.

  • I saw a vegan sea-unicorn.
  • I saw the vegan sea-unicorn.

The a in the first sentence says “random instance of class sea-unicorn”, while the the in the second example says “the instance you and I have in our head”. That’s why a is called indefinite (undefined) article and the is called definite (defined) article.
Do you see what I mean? The noun and the adjective specify a certain type of entity, which can be more or less specific. And the article then “spawns” an instance of that in our sentence.

And while the and a are typically what you find when you look for articles in English, those two are not the only types.
Some languages for instance have what’s called a “proper article“. That article expresses that there is exactly one instance of that entity. English doesn’t have an extra word for it, but you can get a feel for what it would do in phrases like the north pole or the White House, where the the is kind of an integral part of the whole name.
Another type of article is the partitive article, which expresses that your “instance” is an unspecified fraction of the noun. The French article du is an example for such a partitive article, and the idea is pretty well captured by the English some.

  • Could I have some water.

Which of course begs the question if some is an article.
Or what about things like my and mein- and this and dies-? Those are articles, right?
Well…  that’s where we get to the key lesson for today and see the oh so venerable grammar terminology for the absolutely incoherent disastrous mess that it really is.
Get ready for some serious confusion.

grammar terms – an incoherent mess

If we go by what we’ve learned about articles so far, words like some or the pointers like this and the words that express ownership (possessives) like my or your and also words like no and which do fit perfectly as articles.
For one thing, they basically replace the normal articles.

  • the cold beer
  • my cold beer
  • this cold beer
  • which cold beer

And you wouldn’t say

  • the my/no/which cold beer

Well, actually in Italian, it DOES work that way, for some of them. So there, these DO say “the my cold beer”, and so there, the possessive word is more like an adjective.
But in German and English they are in the position of articles.
And what’s more important than the position is that they do the JOB of articles. We’ve said that articles basically specify what instance of a defined noun we have in our sentence. And words like my, your or this do exactly that. There’s a item category “cold beer” and I can drink my cold beer, your cold beer, that cold beer or no cold beer. All different “instances” of the class “cold beer”.

So, these words take the position of an article and they do the job of an article. So they must be articles, right? RIGHT?!
Well… no.
Modern linguistic theory and grammar calls them: determiners.
Determiner is a new category they came up with and it pretty much matches our description of articles, but for some reason, the articles are just ONE subgroup of determiners and possessives and pointers are other subgroups. No idea why, but okay… I’m not a linguist and I’m sure there are reasons for that.

Anyway, if you’ve never heard of determiners, then don’t worry. You’re not alone. Because that concept has NOT made it into the language teaching sphere… at least not for German. The German teacho-sphere largely uses terminology based on the traditional classical grammar.
So how does German teaching material call things like my, your, his?
Well… you can find plenty of tables for the endings of German possessive articles.
However, on another site or in another textbook, you might find a table for the German possessive adjectives. And it’s the same table because it talks about the same thing.
And if you’re then confused and you start digging, you might come across a authoritative looking source that tells you that their REAL name is possessive pronominal adjectives because they’re adjectives that have pronominal features”.
Oh, and if you happened to look in German instead, you’ll find a grammar source that says they’re ACTUALLY called adjektivische Possessivpronomen because they’re “pronouns that have adjective-like features”.

Yeah, right!
The thing is… traditional grammar, for some reason bends over backwards just to not call words like my or your articles, even though that would intuitively make sense. Instead, it comes up with jargon garbage like adjektivische Possessivpronomina, but it’s inconsistent across languages, and so we have multiple terms for the same thing and it’s just really confusing to navigate.

Ideally, the teaching sphere AND the school system would all agree to maybe use the modern linguistic approach and everyone would agree to use one system and one terminology and that’s then used “cross language”.
But that’s not likely to happen any time soon.
So until that day, I feel like it is the responsibility of textbooks and teachers to at least tell the learners about this instead of pretending that their version of the terms is “tHe RhIgHt OnE.”
The terms are a mess. Let’s not pretend like it’s refined, centuries old sacred scholar knowledge.
If a term does it’s job well, then great. If not, let’s bring in a new one. Noun-Bros for the win :)
Seriously though… that was my little rant about terminology and what you should really take away from this is that it is OKAY if you’re confused  by terms and don’t really know what’s what. Because it might just not be your fault at all.

All right. Enough ranting :).

Now, before we wrap up, let’s ask ourselves the question, if we really need articles.

Do we need articles and determiners

And the answer to that is a quick and decisive no. Most Slavic languages get by just fine without the and a and just leave that to context.
And as for the other determiners like my, this, no and so on… you can have all this done by endings or prepositions.

  1. my green shirt (determiner)
  2. green shirt of I (using a preposition)
  3. green shirtme (using an ending)

An example for a language that uses version two is Japanese, and an example for version three is Finnish.
So no… we don’t need articles.
So what do you think, German… why not do away with that? You’d be much leaner for it.
“Yeah… but I think imma keep ’em. I like being a challenge, you know.”
Oh well, I thought I’d ask.

Anyway, so that’s it folks. Now you know what articles are, what they do and most importantly, why you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t know grammar terms, because it’s really quite the mess, especially cross languages.
As always, if you have any questions or thoughts about this, please leave them in the comments. And if you’re in linguistics and you felt a little triggered by my rant, I’m happy to get some pushback :).
Oh and also, let me know how the terms that YOU learned in school and if you have articles in your language.
I hope you had a fun time today and learned a bit.
Have a great week and see you next time.

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JamieMiller
JamieMiller
1 year ago

Anti-Shoutout to the American public school system for hardly ever discussing grammar. Our “English” classes are mostly literature and poetry classes. Thankfully, I did take Latin, which introduced me to a lot of common grammatical concepts. And I’ve always had an interest in grammar, so I learned on my own, sometimes directly via resources, other times via simply mulling over the concepts myself.

But yeah, the average American student leaves high school with a very, very limited understanding of grammar, especially English grammar. It’s pretty sad.

Perkins
Perkins
1 year ago

Hi there!

What’s the difference between “noch mal” (which means again) and wieder (which also means again)?
Is one more colloquial than the other?

Perkins
Perkins
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Sure! I’ll go over there to the dictionary section. Sorry about posting in the wrong place. At first I thought it was the right place because I found the phrase “noch mal” in your email about articles….as in:

“Aber heute gucken wir uns noch mal einen Grammatikbegriff an, und zwar die Artikel. “

Many thanks for your enjoyable emails and essays. I derive tremendous enjoyment from them.

Tomislav Tuškan
Tomislav Tuškan
1 year ago

Do we need articles?
As a native speaker of a slavic language (Croatian) , ok we can do without them.
But I am glad German language has them cos they make it easier to understand it and learn it. In German it really brings a lot of information about a noun. In slavic languages you must determine gender, number, case (7 of them) by ending…and ending depends not only of case, gender and number, but also of stem of a noun.

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago

Hi Emanuel.

from Wictionary we find :

article :From Middle English article, from Old French article, from Latin articulus (“a joint, limb, member, part, division, the article in grammar, a point of time”), from Latin artus, from Proto-Indo-European *h₂értus (“that which is fit together; juncture, ordering”), from the root *h₂er- (“to join, fit (together)”).
But like always the people in Wictionary stop to Latin or old greec. And don’t like to go more deep. Most of linguists know that deeper or before old greec it was Illyrian. And in Illyrian that “us-es- os -etc., it is an inflection of monosillabic verb “ash-osh- ësht, etc”. Meaning in English “it is” and in German “ es ist”. So Proto-Indo-European *h₂értus  got the meaming hzert+us = hzer + ësht,= “it is hzert”. On other hand that Proto-Indo-European  rut *h₂ér = hzer converge to an other Ilirian monosyllabic word “zer= catch”, so all Proto-Indo-European *h₂értus , get the mining = they are all catched together.Could not be much more easy explantation.
herzlich glückwunsch

Ertac
Ertac
1 year ago

There is no articles in Turkish. The way we indicate possession is by adding suffixes. For instance:

silgi -> eraser
silgim -> my eraser

Just adding a suffix is enough but in some cases we tend to use a “possessive adjective.” Possessive adjectives (İyelik Sıfatları) are done by adding the same suffix we added to nouns, to pronouns. For example:

ben -> I
benim -> my

So i can say:

silgim -> my eraser
benim silgim -> my eraser / the eraser of I

I would like to say that “benim silgim” does feel more like “the eraser of I” i think. I don’t know why but it’s just the way it is, at least for me. :)

John
John
1 year ago

Differences between German and English uses of articles is most confusing in German. Remembering when an article is needed or not. Any suggestions for coping with this aspect of the German language?

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  John

I’ve noticed a few examples where there isn’t an article in German. They’re divided into 3 categories in my head, nothing scientific, just some rough ideas.

Professions, for the most part

Er ist ausgebildeter Opernsänger.
Ich bin Holzfäller und mir gehts gut.

Idiomatic or fixed sayings, sometimes

Ich habe Angst. (in general, combinations where the noun seems tightly connected to the verb and the English equivalent doesn’t necessarily have a noun, like “Auto fahren” – drive, drive a car)

Habt ihr Lust, mitzusingen? (counterexamples: Ich habe keinen Bock, keine Lust)

Ihr wart ganz großes Kino. (from the context, something like “you were a really great audience”)

…dass wir als Band noch zusammen spielen (“as a band”)

Colloquial stuff, sometimes (extra colloquial?)

Mach gute Aufnahme, sonst schlag ich dir auf Schnauze.
Der Mann hat auch Hemd an mit Namen drauf.
Mach mal Arm hoch.

Bonus round, odds and ends

Sie hätte beim Film Karriere machen können. (“beim Film” – I know there’s an article there, but I have to work harder to notice it when it’s stuck to the preposition.)

Wir haben (‘n) neues Album rausgebracht. (bad example really, because I can’t tell if the shortened “ein” is there or not. Just sounds like an N that’s maybe microscopically longer than normal.)

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I think you’re right. It just now hit me that “have fun” has a noun, but somehow it doesn’t really feel like it to me. More like just a verb. Funny.

Most of those are from my collection of heavy metal German, which lives in a box and gets looked at sometimes when I wonder if I’m crazy for not hearing an article. My heavy metal English lives in a box and only comes out on special occasions :)

Alan
Alan
1 year ago

If you saw the Vegan Sea Unicorn, unless they are parthenogenetic, it is the last one and you will soon need a new example? Or are they simply carnivorous Sea Unicorns that have decided to live on kelp and give up using a car?

Judit Brandmair
Judit Brandmair
1 year ago

Ääh, ich hab mich vertippt, sorry. Irgendwann würde ich gern eine Folge über Mehrzahl von Nomen lesen. Es gibt davon Typisch und untypisch, und viele Ausnahmen auch. Das wäre enorm hilfreich, ansonsten bin ich und bleibe ein großer Fan von yourdayligerman :) LG

Perkins
Perkins
1 year ago

I need to add one more thing: yesterday’s email said “…was anderes”. When I went to Google’s translator just out of curiosity, I typed in “something different”. Google came up with “etwas anderes”. Is “was anderes” more down to earth (less formal) than “etwas anderes”?

Perkins
Perkins
1 year ago

Yesterday, I got an email about articles from Emanuel. In the email it says “…was anderes”. What is the difference between etwas and was.

Rachel
Rachel
1 year ago

I love the way you make this funny and entertaining. I don’t think I’ve understood it this well before! Thank you for this. Keep it coming

Emanuel Boboiu
Emanuel Boboiu
1 year ago

In Romanian, the indefinite article is placed before the noun, and the definite article is always enclitic.
For instance, the Romanian word for 
“book” is „carte”:
“a book” = „o carte”;
“the book” = „cartea”;
“some books” = „niște cărți”;
“the books” = „cărțile” (that „….ile” at the end of the word is very similar to the Latin demonstrative pronoun “ille, illa, illud” = “that, those” – in Romanian the definite article comes maybe from the Latin demonstrative pronouns.)
And, like in Italian, “my book” is „cartea mea”, “my books” is „cărțile mele” – (The definite article and the possessive adjective are cumulated.)

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel Boboiu

cartea mea and cărțile mele aren’t italian. In Italian my book and my books are “il mio libro” and “i miei libri”.

JamieMiller
JamieMiller
1 year ago
Reply to  Anonymous

They were talking about Romanian, and saying it behaves like Italian with possessives appearing at the end.

“And [in Romanian], like in Italian, “my book” is „cartea mea”, “my books” is „cărțile mele”. “

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri
1 year ago

Hallo lieber Emmanuel,
Zuesrst hast du recht dass im Französischen der Artikel Le benutz wird auch für neutrale Situation . Doch in allgemeine Grammatik gibt nicht solche Fall in der Schüle . Doch als du weisst dass das Französische ist ein Nachwuchs des Latein und das alte Französische hatte ein sachliche Fall . In heutigen Sprache gibt es Le ,La und Les für die bestimmte Artikel .
Ich gebe hier einen Beispiel .
On peut LE dire ainsi. Hier LE geht zu eine Mitteilung zurück , die ist bekannt in einer Anrede oder Ackt des Sprachens .
Ausserdem muss ich hinzufügen dass im Französische gibt es Nul- Artickel für die Nomen in allgemeinen oder spezifischen Fall . Das bedeutet die le,la und Les sind nicht die einzige Bestimmung ( definitness) !
Guten Nacht
Bis bald
Ps
In meine Mutter Sprache/ Persiche gibt – es Nur unbestimmte und Nul-Artikel für bestimmte Normen ! Man handelt so ohne Schwierigkeiten .

Fusun Oguz
Fusun Oguz
1 year ago

Being in the same language family as Finnish, we have version three in Turkish.

Elsa
Elsa
1 year ago

Hello,
The typos:
“the question what articles are” (the question of what articles are)
“something different a connecting particle” (something different from a connecting particle)
call them Article” (call them Articles)
an idea what I mean” (an idea of what I mean)
“applies thousands and thousands” (applies to thousands and thousands)
“Some language for instance” (Some languages for instance)
“especially cross languages” (especially across languages)

Thanks again for making us feel better about not knowing what exactly these things are called (I, for instance, don’t remember what words like my, yours, no, some, etc. may be eventually called and, quite frankly, I don’t care). But I wish there were no genders in other languages. Seriously, it makes the learning so much more difficult…. When I translate from French into English it’s piece of cake, with all the la, le, las, les simply converting to plain old the. But I feel sorry for the poor French who have to do the same, especially when it’s do to with software instructions and they stumble upon words like “deleted” and there’s no indication about what exactly is being deleted… what do you write? erasé/ée/és/ées? Same would apply to German and with three genders (why, oh why?), it all becomes so much more complicated…

Bis bald!

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago

I also wonder if there are any languages that don’t have a way of expressing definiteness. I was just thinking about it from the angle of, we live in a world full of things, we want to talk about those things, and it seems pretty useful to be able to say if you’re referring to a whole category/kind of thing, some part of the category, or a specific/unique/known thing. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something out there that could challenge how I think about that.

Oh, and I came across an interesting and funny flowchart about definiteness in Arabic (scroll to the bottom). I had to look up what “idafa” means, so for anyone else who’s curious, it’s where you put two (or more) nouns together and the second one modifies the first one (the house of the man, the house of a man).

Mihai
Mihai
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

While it lacks articles, Russian does maintain some level of definiteness in adjectives, with short forms carrying an indefinite meaning and long forms – a definite meaning.

Mihai
Mihai
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

In modern Russian the short forms are mostly restricted to predicative adjectives or temporary qualities so the indefinite meaning is very faint. But in Church Slavonic you can definitively :) tell just by looking at the adjective (or adjectival participle or substantivised adjective) if it is definite or indefinite.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago

I think it’s interesting how a language can go from having no articles to having them. I didn’t know until recently that Old English used to not have articles. Somewhere between around 900 and 1300, the word for “that” started to be used like the modern “the” and the word for “one” turned into “a/an.”

The exact dates aren’t clear and it also depends on who you ask, but it seems like “the” might have started to develop around the beginning of that period and “a/an” came later. Which is interesting, because you can do just fine with one or the other (Arabic only has a definite article, and Turkish only has a indefinite article).

Before the change happened, it seems like people made do with the old case system, the words for “this/that,” or just lived a happy, article-free life. So you could say

at edge of forest
I saw door
That king was peerless

Once the definite article started developing, there were some differences to modern English, but also similarities:

Sun has risen (Why not “the sun”? Maybe because there’s only one sun)
The their king began to sing
At sea / at night / before midwinter (more modern example: “by summer”)

And there wasn’t always a huge difference between “the” and “that.” So you can find translations like:

He threw away the/that sword (that was in his hand)

I think there are some situations where you can still kind of see that today.

At the time, I didn’t know it was a bad idea.
At that time, I didn’t know it was a bad idea.

I don’t think I could say those are 100% the same, but the difference feels pretty small to me.

Elsa
Elsa
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

If Fitness-Youtube used “the glutes” or “the abs” it would sound kinda bland!
“Squeeze the glutes/abs” sounds like ok, squeeze the glutes/abs… meh…
On the other hand, “squeeze those glutes” is a lot more motivatinal, like squeeze those mighty powerful, soon-to-be awesone glutes/abs of yours…

At least, that how I perceive it ;)

Elsa
Elsa
1 year ago
Reply to  Elsa

Oh, and this comment of mine is full of typos :))))

Elsa
Elsa
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

You’re right about the rhythm. In fact I just thought of the very widely used phrasing “do + verb” when you want to emphasise an idea. It’s particularly funny when you use two “dos”. Imagine this conversation with one of your interns:

So, why didn’t you do what I asked you?
Oh, that’s not what I do here…
Really? And what is it that you do do?
*blank look* :)

rahway1
rahway1
1 year ago
Reply to  Elsa

I like this comment and it does show English to be too wordy. But, wrt articles in English, I think the articles make it more precise in communicating information. Comparing English to German, I think German is more precise and has a built-in ‘checksum’ with its articles and endings.

dbayly
dbayly
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

If you insert the appropriate commas, it makes much more sense.
The thing is, is that you left the commas out!

Claire Hunt
Claire Hunt
1 year ago
Reply to  dbayly

English wouldn’t have the commas. ‘Do’ implies emphasis. ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’. ‘And what is it that you do do?’ = And what is it that you actually do?

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

It’s funny, I never thought of English as especially musical, but rhythm, intonation, and pauses are definitely a big deal.

With “the thing is,” there really wants to be a strong emphasis on “thing” and “is.” With a pause afterward to really emphasize the thing that comes next, which I think is why you sometimes see it written with a comma.

The thing is, sometimes people don’t believe you, even when you tell the truth. (that my dad ate my homework :))

To me, the extra “is” gives you pretty much the same effect as the intonation and the pause. Or maybe it fills the pause, gives you a break from the stressed syllables. Basically a cue to say, listen up, here comes the important part.