The smartest use of articles

Before we get into the grammatical meaning of articles, I would just like to point out that in British English ‘smart‘ is more commonly used to mean ‘elegantly dressed‘. In American English it usually means ‘intelligent‘, hence the term ‘smartphone‘, although a lot of smartphones these days also look ‘smart‘!

Article‘ is also used in connection with clothing. We can talk about an ‘article of clothing‘ just as we can talk about an ‘item of clothing‘. And so ‘article‘ is sometimes a useful word for classifying clothes.

An ‘article‘ can also be a piece of writing in a magazine or newspaper!

But let’s get back to articles and grammar! (a[n], the, zero)

I was browsing through DIGG this morning and saw an interesting headline – interesting because it demonstrates two important functions of articles.

img_20160507_103141.jpg

This Isn’t a Smart Remote

If we say “a smart remote”, we’re not talking about one remote in particular. We’re talking in this case about a hypothetical remote – one of many.

This use of the indefinite article ‘a‘ to talk about one of many is extremely common in English, but is often neglected by students.

Indonesian students either omit the article completely, or use a strategy from their first language to communicate one of many, usually translating directly from ‘salah satu‘ (one of), or simply ‘satu‘ (one).

It’s The Smartest Remote

If we say it’s “the smartest remote” then we’re talking about this one exactly, without comparison.


Clearly the advertisers, or journalists, want us to think of this smartphone as somehow unique. It’s not one of many, it’s this one exactly.

One last time for good measure:

  • one of many – ‘a
  • this one exactly – ‘the

Try to use these articles in your writing and speaking to communicate these meanings accurately. Then watch as your IELTS grammar scores begin to increase!

Pronunciation by George

Indonesian flag Indonesians hate to add ‘s‘ to plurals, possessives and third person verbs. In Bahasa Indonesia these grammatical features are produced in other ways.

It’s also extremely unusual in Bahasa Indonesia to see two or more consonants together, which is often what happens when you add ‘s’ to the end of a word:

  • Mike’s (possessive, 2 consonants together)
  • expands (third person, 3 consonants together)
  • texts (plural, 4 consonants together!)

Pronouncing this final ‘s‘ is difficult for Indonesians and for some reason embarrassing, rather like when English people attempt to pronounce the French ‘r‘.

But if you want to communicate well, and if you want a good score for pronunciation in IELTS speaking, then you had better start producing the ‘s’ at word endings!

In this video, former student George does his best to put ‘s‘ in all the right places. I’ve added a scoring feature to help you follow his ‘performance’!

A good way to practice ‘s‘ is to record yourself, and then listen back following a tapescript. Focus on the ‘s‘ in particular. Exaggerate it. Make it longer and louder. In the IELTS test make sure the examiner can hear it!

Use ‘it’ with care

People who live in remote areas sometimes have limited access to the things they want to buy. Since it cannot be provided by retail shops, online shopping may be the solution.

To make your writing ‘flow’ so that pieces of information connect together well, use ‘itonly when ‘it‘ refers back to the subject of the previous sentence.

When you use ‘it’ then the subject will be either singular countable or uncountable:

  • My watch was expensive. It is a gold watch. I love it.
  • Beer is delicious. It is also expensive. I love it.

In the opening example the reader searches for but cannot find a subject to match ‘it‘. For a start, all of the nouns are plural!

After re-reading the text two or three times we see you are using ‘it‘ to refer to ‘the things people want to buy‘, which is rather confusing since ‘the things people want to buy‘ is not the subject of the previous sentence and it is neither singular countable nor uncountable.

This kind of mismatch interrupts the flow of information in the text and brings down your score for coherence and cohesion in IELTS writing, as well as your score for fluency in IELTS speaking.

In order to maintain ‘flow’ in the online shopping example, you need to do this:

  • People who live in remote areas sometimes have limited access to the things they want to buy. Since the things that people who live in remote areas want to buy cannot be provided by retail shops, online shopping may be the solution.

And for even better flow you can remind your reader about the context of those retail shops. After all, you’re not talking about retail shops in the middle of a large city, are you?

  • People who live in remote areas sometimes have limited access to the things they want to buy. Since the things that people who live in remote areas want to buy cannot be provided by retail shops in those areas, online shopping may be the solution.

Students often complain, “..but now there’s a lot of repetition!”

Perhaps, but your first priority is to communicate effectively. If the only way to achieve this is by repeating a few words, then you MUST repeat them.

And remember – ‘it‘ refers back to the subject of the previous sentence. Do not make the following mistake:

If your dog poos..

Noun phrase ‘__ed’ucation

Consequently, people lived in remote areas sometimes have limited access to learning resources.

Here the student wants to post-modify the noun ‘people‘ using a verb – ‘live‘. When post-modifying nouns using verbs, one option is to use a non-finite verb. Don’t worry you don’t need to google ‘non-finite’ – that’s just a fancy name for the following little group of verb forms:

  • __ing (fancy name ‘present participle’)
  • V3 (fancy name ‘past participle’)
  • to + v1 (fancy name ‘infinitive’)

If you’re using V3 to extend or ‘post-modify’ a noun, then you’re really using a kind of shortened relative clause:

  • ..people who are lived in remote areas..

In this case you end up with a passive construction (to be + V3), which obviously doesn’t make sense here because a thing or a person cannot ‘be lived‘.

Live‘ is an intransitive verb – it doesn’t take an object. But no worries, we can easily re-write the noun phrase with a relative clause and a transitive verb so that it makes sense:

  • ..people who are situated in remote areas..

Native speakers will nearly always shorten this relative clause to leave the non-finite verb only:

  • ..people situated in remote areas..

Finally, the noun phrase can now be incorporated into the sentence like this:

  • Consequently, people situated in remote areas sometimes have limited access to learning resources.

Alternatively we could stick with ‘live‘ but use __ing:

  • Consequently, people living in remote areas sometimes have limited access to learning resources.

In this case we are shortening another relative clause but we don’t have to consider whether or not the verb is transitive:

  • ..people who are living in remote areas..

When post-modifying nouns, native speakers generally use the shortened version without the relative pronoun.


To end this post, it’s worth putting non-finite verbs in context with other common methods for post-modifying nouns:

preposition phrases relative clauses __ing, V3, to+V1 time expressions

Sometimes these are interchangeable:

the number of plastic bags used by consumers in 2015 in America
the number of plastic bags used in America by consumers in 2015

And I’ll throw in a relative clause just to show off:

the number of plastic bags used by consumers in 2015 in America which are not made of biodegradable material

Notice that the __ed phrase also has a preposition phrase embedded into it:

used by consumers
used in America

And notice that time expressions are often also preposition phrases:

in 2015
on Tuesday
after I finished work
etc.

I hope all of that helps and look forward to hearing your feedback!

Close to edge(?!)

Many countries are spending a lot of money on space exploration in order to reach edge of the universe.

Unfortunately in English nouns usually need some grammar in front of them in order to answer at least one of the following questions:

  • Which one(s)?
  • Whose?
  • How many?

So let’s apply these questions to each of the five nouns in our example and make sure we have the right grammar in front of the noun. Here’s the example with the nouns highlighted:

Many countries are spending a lot of money on space exploration in order to reach edge of the universe.
  1. countries
    1. Which ones? – It doesn’t matter.
    2. Whose? – Doesn’t matter.
    3. How many? – ‘many’ answers this question. The number is not exact, but it doesn’t need to be exact. It’s enough to know that more than one country is being referred to.

So far, so good!

  1. money
    1. Which? – It doesn’t matter.
    2. Whose? – We can assume the money is being spent by the ‘countries’.
    3. How much? – ‘a lot of’ serves the same function as ‘many’.
  2. exploration
    1. Which? We don’t need any grammar to tell us which ‘exploration’. The word ‘space’ already answers that question. We know that it’s ‘space exploration’, and NOT ‘jungle exploration’ or ‘ocean exploration’.
    2. Whose? – We can assume the countries.
    3. How much? – Not important at this stage.
  3. edge
    1. Which one? – There is some text immediately after ‘edge’ that tells us exactly which edge – the edge of the universe (NOT the edge of the table). However, if it’s clear to both writer and reader exactly which noun is being referred to then in English we have to use the definite article ‘the’ in front of the noun. This was the grammatical error in the sentence – a missing ‘the’: the edge of the universe.
    2. Whose? – Irrelevant.
    3. How many? – Also irrelevant.
  4. universe
    1. Which one? – This is a special use of ‘the’ to tell us which one – when there is only one in the writer and reader’s shared context of reference! (Like the moon, the kitchen, etc.)
    2. Whose? – Irrelevant, although it would make for an interesting philosophical discussion!
    3. How many? – Irrelevant, but also interesting from a scientific / philosophical perspective!

Indonesian flag Indonesian students are generally clear about whose and how many. However, they often forget to use articles to communicate which one(s).

Note that when a noun is followed by a preposition phrase (e.g. of the universe), that phrase usually tells exactly which noun you’re talking about. Next time you write a preposition phrase after a noun, especially one beginning ‘of’, think about using ‘the’ in front of the noun!


There is an idiom – ‘Close to the edge’ whose idiomatic meaning is perhaps best communicated in the song The Message by Grandmaster Flash:

Don’t push me, ‘coz I’m close to the edge
I’m tryin’ not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from going’ under

You can listen to The Message here and follow the lyrics, but be warned – it’s full of other less useful idioms!

And while we’re talking about music, back in 1972 British prog rock band Yes made an album called Close to the edge!

Book or film?

Students, especially Indonesian students, often tell me that they would much rather watch a film than read a book. Reading is boring, they say.

I would like to invite you to think again about reading.

My teaching colleagues and I would all agree that reading novels is fun, and we all recommend this kind of ‘extensive’ reading to our students. Most of us would also agree that when a film is made based on a book, the book is always much more satisfying than the film of the book.

Let’s try an experiment. Let’s see which you prefer – the book or the film? First you’re going to read and listen to a short text. Then you’re going to watch a movie clip based on the same text. Finally you’ll reflect on the experience and think again about which you prefer – reading or just ‘watching’.

1. Reading

Read the text shown in the clip below and use your imagination to picture what’s going on in the ‘story’. Think carefully about the imagery and about characters in the story. What do the people in the story look like? Where are they?

2. Watching

Now watch the ‘movie’. Compare what you see in the film to what you saw in your mind as you were reading. Did you ‘see’ the same things? How are the images in the video different from the images you saw in your mind when you were reading?

3. Reflection

So what do you think? Do you still prefer watching somebody else’s thoughts. Who is the best ‘director’? You when you read? Or someone else when they read?

I’d be very interested to know your thoughts about reading vs. viewing. What are your preferences and why? Please comment below.

And why do you think I showed a picture of an iceberg as the featured image for this post?

Be a people person!

The event was extremely successful. It was attended by more than a thousand persons.

The only time I ever use this word (‘persons‘) is in the classroom. Outside the classroom – 99.9% of the time – the plural of ‘person‘ is ‘people‘.

  • The event was extremely successful. It was attended by more than a thousand people.

Only use ‘persons‘ in extremely formal, especially legal situations. I’m such a nice teacher that I’ve prepared some examples (with captions!) for you to click through. This will be followed by some music.

Hope you enjoyed the gallery!

And now, before the music, an idiom. Perhaps you saw the featured image for this post? The ‘people person‘ mug? If you’re a ‘people person‘ then basically you much prefer to be with other people than to be alone.

Well, you’ve had a gallery, and an idiom. Now some music – a song about ‘people‘ from two famous ‘people persons’Barbara Streisand and Stevie Wonder!

Is it worth it?

This post comes with a fun challenge. Continue reading or jump straight to the challenge!

Is it worth to spend large amounts of money on space exploration?

Indonesian flag This is an expression that doesn’t really have a nice translation in Bahasa Indonesia, (closest equivalent = layak) and so I seldom hear it from students. But it’s extremely common in spoken and written English, and so it’s one you should learn to use.

This is the correct collocation:

  • Is it worth spending large amounts of money on space exploration?

Possible answers include..

  • Yes, it’s (it is) worth it.
  • Yes, it’s (it is) worth spending money on space exploration.
  • No, it isn’t (it is not) worth it.
  • No, it’s (it is) not worth it.
  • No, it isn’t (is not) worth spending money on space exploration.

When you ask “Is it worth it?” you’re asking..

  • Is it basically more advantageous than disadvantageous?
  • Is the extra expense justified?
  • Is the additional time investment justified?

And so we have the idiom “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right!” If you’re investing extra time and/or money into a job or task, then it would be a sin to put in less than 100% effort:

one job to do - school

And now for the challenge. Can you think of 5 activities that require additional time, effort and expense but are still worth it? Comments below! 🙂

Dogs don’t have voices

Moving on to look at the various factors irritating theatregoers, six include undesirable voice including sneezing, whispering, snoring, rustling sweet papers, mobile phones and coughing.

Indonesian flag Indonesians stop and think the next time you want to translate ‘suara‘!

None of the sounds in the above example represent an attempt to ‘voice’ (v) speech or song, and so they are not examples of voice‘ (n), they are simply examples of ‘sounds‘. Note that whispering, which is a form of speech, is nevertheless notvoiced‘ (your larynx does not vibrate when you whisper):

  • Moving on to look at the various factors irritating theatregoers, six include undesirable sounds including sneezing, whispering, snoring, rustling sweet papers, mobile phones and coughing.

When you are sick with a heavy cold or flu you sometimes ‘lose your voice‘, so that people cannot hear very easily what you are saying, and singing becomes impossible. However, only humans can lose their voices. All other animals, vegetables and minerals simply make ‘sounds‘.

Pronoun substitution and an alternative

When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. They can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

Almost! But..

A personal pronoun at the beginning of a sentence refers back to the subject of the previous sentence, and in this case the subject of the previous sentence is ‘the goods’. ‘When people go to real shops’ is an adverb phrase. So obviously that doesn’t make sense: The goods can try clothes on!?

If you want to use ‘They’ as a substitute for ‘the goods’, that’s tricky but not impossible:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. They can be touched, and the material from which they were made can be seen and felt.

But that’s probably not what you wanted. You wanted ‘People’ as the subject of the second sentence, right? In that case you simply need to state the subject in the second sentence:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. People can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

Now you have nice cohesion between the two sentences, with ‘people’ in both sentences. However, to make your writing more coherent you could be more specific about ‘people’:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. People in real shops can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

And finally to avoid repetition you can do this:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. Customers in real shops can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

So in fact you didn’t need to use pronoun substitution. Instead the two sentences are glued together (cohesive) thanks to the use of ‘people (who) go to real shops‘ in sentence 1 and ‘customers in real shops‘ in sentence 2.

You could probably also use a synonym for ‘real’ in sentence 2, but I can’t think of one. Can you? Comments below! 🙂