Definitely use definite and indefinite articles except when indefinite

February 17, 2011

I’m here at home late at night and have no examples at hand, but I can tell you with confidence that there is one great difference between Indian English and American English. Well, there are several, but it’s a little one that dominates my attention: when we choose to use the definite article “the” and the indefinite articles “a” and “an.”

For several years now, I have read stories in the Indian press and stumbled when I expected a “the,” “a” or “an” and didn’t get one. Other times, they have come up when I least expected. I don’t know why this is, though I suspect that linguists from all over the world have studied the situation at one time or another.

I saw a lot of this in editing stories today. One of my new friends wrote up a lovely interview story and there were direct quotes in which I knew the man must have uttered one of the definite articles, but they didn’t show up in the quotes. I changed them after the reporter and I talked it over. Thinking about it later, I wondered whether it was like trying to pronounce sounds that are alien to your native language: does your brain choose not to hear certain words that you do not expect to occur in a certain part of the sentence? Is it like when I cannot hear the difference between three ways of pronouncing in Hindi what to me is the sound “T?”

It may not make a big difference in the universe, but little things like this are fascinating challenges in editing, especially at an international news organization like ours. How do you teach people to change the tuning of their ears? I don’t know if there is an answer. Cancel that. I know there’s an answer. I have no idea what it is. But I’m working on it.

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