The Use of Articles in English Writing

Learning the proper use of articles is one of the most complicated aspects of the English language for non-native English speaking scientists. Some languages, such as Chinese, Japanese, Polish, and Russian, have no articles. Arabic has only the definite article, and article use varies in German, French, and Spanish. For example, in German, articles are used differently based on the number, gender, and case of the nouns to which they refer. In English, articles are not always necessary, whereas in French and Spanish articles are used for almost every noun and, as in German, agree in gender and number with the noun with which they are used.


Use of articles in science writing

Science writing requires precision. The incorrect use of articles can entirely change the intended meaning of a sentence. For example, the sentence "The lesioned brain shows memory deficits" refers to a brain with a previously described brain lesion, whereas "A lesioned brain shows memory deficits" implies that any brain with any size lesion anywhere in the brain will exhibit memory deficits, which is clearly not the case. In another example, "The cells were placed in a culture dish" differs in meaning from "The cells were placed in the culture dish". The article 'the' refers to a specific noun, therefore in the second example it is important to clarify which culture dish, perhaps the culture dish containing supplemented medium.


Definite (the) vs. indefinite (a, an) articles

The English language has three articles: a definite article, 'the', and two indefinite articles, 'a' and 'an'. As a definite article, 'the' is used when referring to something specific, as in "The frontal lobe of the brain mediates higher functions." There is not more than one frontal lobe or more than one brain, therefore the article used is a definite article. The indefinite articles, 'a' and 'an', are used when the noun is not specific: "A neuron comprises a soma, an axon, and dendrites." Nouns are often first introduced into an article or conversation using an indefinite article, 'a' or 'an', and then subsequently referred to using the definite article 'the'. "The assay was performed using an ELISA. The ELISA data indicated that interleukin-1a levels had increased."


Use of articles with plural nouns vs. single count nouns

The definite article 'the' is used with both non-plural nouns and plural countable nouns. "The assays were performed according to the manufacturer's instructions." If 'the' is omitted, then the preceding sentence means "all assays were performed according to the manufacturer's instructions". Including the article 'the' indicates that a previously specified subset of assays was performed according to the manufacturer's instructions. Indefinite articles, 'a' or 'an', are used only with non-plural nouns. "A neuron comprises a soma, an axon, and dendrites." In the preceding sentence 'soma' and 'axon' are singular nouns and 'dendrites' are a plural noun.


When to use 'a' vs. 'an'

The use of 'a' and 'an' depend on whether the following word begins with a vowel or consonant sound. "A neuron comprises a soma, an axon, and dendrites." Note that in the preceding sentence, 'an' is used before 'axon', which begins not only with a vowel, but more importantly, with a vowel sound, "ak-san". When a noun or the adjective that precedes it begins with a vowel, but not a vowel sound, 'a' is used. For example, in the sentence "Observation under a microscope revealed a unique cell-type." In this case, although 'unique' begins with a vowel, the spoken word ('yoo-neek') does not begin with a vowel sound.


Using indirect articles ('a' and 'an') with acronyms and abbreviations

In science manuscripts, many acronyms and abbreviations are used. In this case, the choice of 'a' or 'an' is more complicated. The simplest method of choosing whether to use 'a' or 'an' is to read the sentence out loud to determine whether you read the acronym/abbreviation as written or as the word(s) it represents. For example, 'a UTR' is read as either "a yoo-tee-ar" or "an untranslated region". In this case, there is no right or wrong, but the article is selected based on readability and, importantly, should be used consistently with that word throughout the manuscript.


Using articles with superlative adjectives

The definite article 'the' is used in conjunction with adjectives in the superlative form, and adjectives or adverbs assigning a degree or extent (usually words ending in –est or with the word 'most'). For example, "Untreated cells exhibited the weakest staining".


When not to use articles

Non-native English writers commonly either omit or overuse articles. Articles are not always necessary. Articles are generally not used when referring to an entire category, such as education, patience, music, etc. That is "Music enhances learning" instead of "The music enhances learning." On the other hand, if referring to a specific music experience, then "the" is used. For example, "The music of Mozart had better learning-enhancing effects than the music of Bach." Another example of a category is 'literature', which can be either general or specific. When referring to literature in general, it is correct to write "Literature is a worthwhile subject to take in college", whereas when referring to a specific body of literature, the following is correct: "We reviewed the literature in this field from 2000 – 2014." The questions to ask yourself are, does the identity of this noun require clarification? Will specifying the noun using an article make the noun too specific?

As is always the case in English, for every rule there is at least one exception, which makes it difficult to simply follow a set of rules for correctly using articles. A native English-speaking editor will know when to use which article, and equally important, in which cases the general rules do not apply. If in doubt, ask your editor; we are always available to help you.