Articles – and now the exceptions

No rule without exception is the unfortunate truth with most languages – and pretty much any and all other rules.  In a prior post we were talking about the rules for the use of articles in English which leaves us to explore what the exceptions are. Here we go: certain fixed expressions of place, time and movement do not take articles.  Here are some examples:

  • I am going to school – not the school
  • He was in prison – not the prison
  • Let’s stay home tonight – not the home
  • we’ll go by car – not by the car.  However, it is “we’ll take the car” not “we’ll take car”

A more comprehensive list can be found here. Articles are also often dropped after the following expressions: after both, all, sort of, kind of and alike as in these examples:

  • Both boys and girls were playing soccer
  • All family members spent the weekend at the beach house
  • What type of food do you prefer?

Also double expressions often do not have an article:

  • Brother and sister came to visit
  • Cats and dogs often fight
  • We are available day and night

Also the following categories of exception exist: No article is needed for

  1. Words used in a general sense – “women love shoes” – it is a general statement, whether true or not or Japanese food is healthy – in general, not just the dish you are currently enjoying
  2. Countries, towns, continents, etc.  – I live in Germany – okay, there are exceptions to the exception such as “I live in the Netherlands” but the country is called “the Netherlands” (another: The United Kingdom) so it makes sense
  3. Languages – “I used to study Spanish”
  4. Acronyms as long as they are pronounced as one word such as NATO, FIFA, SCOTUS but an article is needed when the letters are pronounced independently such as UN, WHO, NIH, etc
  5. Holidays – Christmas is my favorite holiday.  Halloween is fun.

These are so to speak the official exceptions, those you can read about in books and on other webpages but then there are some that I have encountered repeatedly and I have grown used to but really can’t explain or find a proper explanation for.

Here is what I mean: When speaking about babies people often drop the article.  You will hear sentences like “make sure baby’s head is not covered with a blanket.”  If that sentence addresses a particular set of parents with a specific baby then the sentence should be “make sure the/your baby’s head is not covered with a blanket”.  If, however, one is speaking about babies in general the imperative would not be used and the sentence would be something like “Babies’ heads should never be covered by a blanket”.  I suspect “babies” or “baby” in such sentences is used as a placeholder for a name.  And since we don’t know whether this particular baby is called Michael or Michelle they are called “Baby” as name.  I suppose it is meant to sound more personal – to me it sounds weird to this day.

Keep the - aehm - your distance. pic source: http://www.drive-safely.net/safe-following-distance/

Keep the – aehm – your distance. pic source: http://www.drive-safely.net/safe-following-distance/

Something similar happens with legal counsel but probably not for the same reason.  In business you will hear sentences like “let’s run this by Counsel” or “we need to get Counsel’s approval.”  However, you wouldn’t say, “let’s run this by doctor/CEO” it would definitely be “let’s run this by the/your doctor/ the CEO.” Why Counsel here is treated like an general concept as in #1 above rather than an individual is unclear to me.  Maybe people want to give the impression that they have a whole, well-oiled legal machinery supporting them rather than one little lone lawyer – but I am just guessing here. Another confusion is around the use of “you/your” in certain instances where, e.g. in German and also in Spanish nothing would be used.   A recent example is from I trip I took to Austria.  On the freeways they had signs up that encourage people not to drive to closely behind the car in front of them.  And surprisingly, those signs were in English.  Discouragingly, though, they said “keep the distance!” “Wrong”, I screamed, “it has to be ‘keep your distance'”.  My German friends did not understand where the “your” is coming from and I couldn’t explain it.  I just knew that nobody would ever say “keep the distance”.  It just sounds weird.  Driving 90 miles per hour I missed the opportunity to take a picture of this faux pas – darn.

So here we have a few exceptions to mull over.  Like with all languages, the little things like keep your distance and keep the distance can make a the difference.

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