Article problems and a connection with the topic-comment structure

Articles: the and a

Chinese does not use the definite article the (定冠) or the indefinite article a (), so using articles correctly is often a problem for Chinese learners of English. Although Chinese does not have the definite article, a similar meaning can be indicated using a topic-comment structure likeJiang, 2009, 158):


Shu wo huan le

The book, I have returned

The effect of  placing at the front of the sentence, as the topic, is to indicate that “both the speaker and the listener had known the book and had talked about it before the sentence was uttered” (Ibid. 158).  But in English this meaning would be expressed using ‘the’, indicating that the listener/reader knew about the book and had discussed it previously. On the other hand, if ‘a’ is used (‘I have returned a book’) then it means that the listener/reader does not know which book it is, and you have not already talked about returning a specific book.

Chinese learners very commonly omit articles, and the seems to create more problems than a. The examples below are typical situations where the  is wrongly omitted: before abbreviations and in certain phrases like ‘on the other hand’.

(1) …make recommendations for the improvement of IMF in global economy

(2) On one hand,

If the full non-abbreviated form needs an article, then the abbreviation should have an article as well, and here IMF stands for ‘international monetary fund’, and so we need to say ‘the international monetary fund’. ‘On the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ are set phrases that require ‘the’. And finally, ‘the’ has been omitted before ‘global economy’, when it is required because ‘global economy’ is a specific thing known to both the writer and reader. 

Common errors with “the”

We do not usually use an article with continents or countries, so we say “In Europe, France, and England” (and it is wrong to say e.g. “In the England”). But we do use the before the abbreviations UK and US (because articles are used before country names that also contain a common noun e.g. state, kingdom).  

Incorrect: In US and UK there are many different views.

Correct: In the US and the UK there are many different views.

Incorrect: US and UK are major consumers of coffee.

Correct: The US and the UK are major consumers of coffee.


Note, however, that ‘the’ is required before nationality adjectives (e.g. Japanese/Chinese) when used as nouns:

Incorrect: Americans consume more coffee than Japanese and Chinese.

Correct: Americans consume more coffee than the Japanese and the Chinese.

Incorrect: French love croissants.

Correct: The French love croissants.


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