• Dressing Girls as Boys; A Lesson on Articles (a/an/the) and Gender Issues

    I read this article in the New York Times Magazine and was fascinated by the phen0menon of girls dressing as boys in Afghanistan. I also watched the video and was intrigued by the inconsistencies of gender in Afghan society. I’m not sure what language Azita Rafaat, the mother in the story, speaks, however I noticed that she has a similar way of speaking to some of my students. When I listened again I noticed she has difficulties with articles, so here I will explain the English article.

    English Practice Pre-Listening Questions:

    1. Does your country and culture prefer to have boy children over girl children? Why?
    2. Are there any beliefs about how the gender of a baby is decided?
    3. Do you have both boys and girls in your family?
    4. Would you prefer a boy child over a girl child? Why?
    5. What problems do countries have that show a preference to the boy child over the girl child?

    Read through the grammar rules, watch the video, and then do the listening exercises.


    English has two articles: the and a/an. The is used to refer to specific or particular nouns; a/an is used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. We call the the definite article and a/an the indefinite article.

    the = definite article

    a/an = indefinite article

    For example, if I say, “Let’s read the book,” I mean a specific book. If I say, “Let’s read a book,” I mean any book rather than a specific book.

    • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant: a boy; a car; a bike; a zoo; a dog
    • an + singular noun beginning with a vowel: an elephant; an egg; an apple; an idiot; an orphan
    • In some cases where “h” is pronounced, such as “historical,” use an:

    Definite Article: the

    The definite article is used before singular and plural nouns when the noun is specific or particular. The signals that the noun is definite, that it refers to a particular member of a group. For example:

    1. “The dog that bit me ran away.” Here, we’re talking about a specific dog, the dog that bit me.
    2. “I was happy to see the policeman who saved my cat!” Here, we’re talking about a particular policeman. Even if we don’t know the policeman’s name, it’s still a particular policeman because it is the one who saved the cat.
    3. “I saw the elephant at the zoo.” Here, we’re talking about a specific noun. Probably there is only one elephant at the zoo.

    Countable and Uncountable Nouns

    The can be used with uncountable nouns, or the article can be omitted entirely.

    1. “I love to sail over the water” (some specific body of water) or “I love to sail over water” (any water).
    2. “He spilled the milk all over the floor” (some specific milk, perhaps the milk you bought earlier that day) or “He spilled milk all over the floor” (any milk).

    “A/an” can be used only with count nouns.

    1. “I need a bottle of water.”
    2. “I need a new glass of milk.”

    Most of the time, you can’t say, “She wants a water,” unless you’re implying, say, a bottle of water.

    Geographical use of the

    There are some specific rules for using the with geographical nouns.

    Do not use the before:

    1. names of most countries/territories: Italy, Mexico, Bolivia; however, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the United States
    2. names of cities, towns, or states: Seoul, Manitoba, Miami
    3. names of streets: Washington Blvd., Main St.
    4. names of lakes and bays: Lake Titicaca, Lake Erie except with a group of lakes like the Great Lakes
    5. names of mountains: Mount Everest, Mount Fuji except with ranges of mountains like the Andes or the Rockies or unusual names like the Matterhorn
    6. names of continents (Asia, Europe)
    7. names of islands (Easter Island, Maui, Key West) except with island chains like the Aleutians, the Hebrides, or the Canary Islands

    Do use the before:

    1. names of rivers, oceans and seas: the Nile, the Pacific
    2. points on the globe: the Equator, the North Pole
    3. geographical areas: the Middle East, the West
    4. deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas: the Sahara, the Persian Gulf, the Black Forest, the Iberian Peninsula

    Omission of Articles

    Some common types of nouns that don’t take an article are:

    1. Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian (unless you are referring to the population of the nation: “The Spanish are known for their warm hospitality.”)
    2. Names of sports: volleyball, hockey, baseball
    3. Names of academic subjects: mathematics, biology, history, computer science

    Click here to watch the video.

    Practice your English Listening skills:

    1. What kind of morning is it?
    2. Azita is the ______ winner. She earns the most money for the family.
    3. Because she didn’t have any sons she decided to do something ________.
    4. She has decided to reveal her secret, _______ of the risks posed to her.
    5. Why is Azita a target?
    6. How old is she?
    7. Azita takes ________ from her constituents while she cooks for her guests.
    8. Azita and her husband are also __________?

    Try this grammar practice below:

    Complete the gaps with a/an, the or —— (if no article is required)


    One afternoon______wolf waited in ______dark forest for____girl to come by. He was very hungry because it had been _____long time since he had eaten anything. Finally,______little girl did come along __path and she was carrying ____basket of food.

    ____girl was happy, ___weather was good, ____sun was shining and _____birds were singing. She loved _____nature and being with _____animals. “What ____beautiful day!” she thought. She was happy that is was ____holiday and that she wasnʼt at _____school.

    ______wolf asked her if she was going to visit her grandmother and she said that she was. So ___wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and _____little girl told him. Then he ran off. When _____little girl opened _____door of _____Grannyʼs house she saw that there was somebody in _____bed listening to ______radio, wearing_____nightcap and ____nightdress. When she was ten meters from _____bed she saw that it was not her grandmother but _______wolf, because eerybody knows that ____wolf in ____nightcap looks nothing like your granny. So she took ______gun from her basket and shot _______wolf dead.

    Moral: It is not so easy to fool_____little girls nowadays as it used to be.

    Questions? Email us, or contact us about English classes.

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