Indefinite vs. definite articles for ESL students

Dear Conan,

If the plural of fungus is fungii, would the plural of dufus be dufii?

Also, I have a more serious question.

I recently corrected several chapters of someone’s┬áthesis for a master’s degree. The writer was a non-native speaker of English, obviously not knowing when to include an indefinite article, a definite article or nothing before a noun. Some of this may be cultural, as in the way British people say, “she was in hospital,” but Americans say, “she was in THE hospital.”

I can tell the difference when I read it, but I don’t know the grammatical reasons why. Other than cultural differences, how do you coach someone on how and when to use articles in front of nouns and when not to?

Ironically, I’m having a hard time finding good clues on what I thought would be an easy topic. Maybe “articles” would make a good topic for the show, since it is one of the main parts of speech in English.




Dear Scott,

Great to hear from you, although right off the bat I must chide you publicly: there’s only one “i” at the end of “fungi.” So when you’re helping out non-native speakers, be sure they understand that “dufi” has only one “i” as well. Should help them assimilate into our culture more smoothly.

Anyhow, on to your question about articles. Since it is so specific, I found an expert to help out. On the web site there’s a whole section devoted to this very dilemma. But to summarize, the writer recommends following three general rules when helping non-native English speakers with the whole article controversy:

Rule 1: Use indefinite articles for previously unknown nouns that are being introduced, and use definite articles for nouns that have already been introduced (or are already known or are assumed to be known at the point of introduction).

Rule 2: When a noun is unique, use a definite article.

Rule 3: When speaking of a noun in general, you will usually leave the article out and, if the noun is countable, use its plural form.

Read the whole article here. Hope this helps, Scott. Let me know if it doesn’t, and I will tirelessly seek out the truth for you.

Your ally in correctness,



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