Decades ago, I studied abroad in Moscow, in the Soviet Union. One day, my Russian friends and I were walking along at VDNkh and came across a billboard that read Выставка ПрогрессаVystavka Progressa. One friend decided to translate the billboard: “The exhibition of the progress.”
“Uh, no,” I responded. “Just ‘the exhibition of progress.'”
“I don’t know.”
Native speakers of English usually have no trouble with the use of the definite article the or the indefinite article a/an, but we can’t always explain the rule for their use. And non-native speakers, especially ones whose native languages are like Russian and lack both definite and indefinite articles, often have a really hard time figuring out when to use them.
So, for the benefit of learners of English and native speakers alike, let’s explore how definite and indefinite articles in English are used.
To say that our cultural consciousness on matters of gender identity is rapidly evolving is an understatement. In a few short years, our awareness as a culture went from practically none to a kind of “how could you not know that?” state. Let me give you a quick illustration.
For many years, I had the privilege of working in a campus ministry context. The community I served was a community of students committed to sharing the radical, all-inclusive love of God with a broken world through acts of worship, devotion, service, hospitality, and especially social justice. Of the religious communities on campus, aside from the Unitarians, they were by far the most progressive.
Once, at a student leadership meeting in 2010, one of the students made an announcement about the men’s group breakfast the following weekend. “So, if you like Canadian bacon and don’t have a uterus, you’re welcome to come.” In three years’ time, in that same community—a community that would invite “all female and female-identifying persons” to attend women’s group meetings—this comment would have been viewed as terribly transphobic. But in 2010, no one even batted an eye—in the most progressive and social justice-conscious religious community on a very liberal campus.
The speed of this change means that a lot of people are still catching up to the understandings of gender and how it differs from sex and biology. But it also means that even for well-meaning older folks, there are different obstacles that are hard to eradicate in quick order.
In every language, there is a grammatical rule that is so embedded into the language that its native speakers are barely aware of it, even as non-native students of the language struggle to master it.
When I studied abroad in the Soviet Union,1Younger readers, ask your parents; it was a country more or less where Russia is now. I remember having a conversation with some Russian friends about the challenges of learning each other’s languages. “What’s the hardest thing about Russian grammar?” one of my friends asked me. “Oh, that’s easy,” I answered. “Verbs of motion.” (I even said this in Russian.)
“Verbs of what?” came my friend’s confused reply. He had never even heard of this category of verb—a category that bedevils students of Russian to this day. I explained what I was talking about, but it was clear that he was still mystified.
“Your turn,” I said. “What’s the hardest thing about English?”
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before!
Star Trek, 1966–1969
With these words a new era in science-fiction was launched, and the mission not only of the Enterprise but of an entire franchise was declared.
But these words also irritated an awful lot of grammar purists.
“To boldly go?” they objected. “That’s a split infinitive. That’s bad grammar!”
But why? What is so wrong with saying to boldly go? To understand that, you have to understand something about the history of English.
Unlike many of the so-called “grammar rules” that are really style rules, the rule against dangling participles is a good one.
A Dangling What, Now?
A participle is a verbal adjective that comes in two main varieties: the present participle, usually formed with -ing, and the past participle, usually formed with -ed. These verbal adjectives generally function the way other adjectives do:
The flowing water pours out of the fountain.
The disrespected attorney lost his practice.
In addition, participles can head a phrase that modifies a noun in a sentence:
I saw the dog running down the street.
She hit the car parkedin the driveway.
Sitting in the park, I awaited my true love.
Beaten back by the revolutionaries, the army fled the field.