Life, by Keith Richards, is a wonderful memoir; Autobiography of Mark Twain is quite as splendid a recollection of a life as well. Both titles sit atop bestseller lists, securely emanating self-confidence and excellence, quite like their subjects, with nary an A, An, or The to introduce them.
What are these little words? How, exactly, do they function in English? And why do so very many people who learn English as adults find our usage so baffling?
Teaching people who acquire English as a second, third, etc., language how to use articles like native English speakers do is a challenge.
Yet young children quickly pick up the unspoken rules of article usage from their surrounding adults, and native speakers seldom misspeak them or use them incorrectly. Let's look at what articles are and their underlying logic—or lack thereof?
A, an, and the are articles. They immediately precede nouns or noun phrases, and they are a subcategory of determiners, modifiers that determine something about the noun that follows. Determiners include articles; pronouns (certain possessive forms [my, your, his, her, its, our, their]; and demonstratives [this, that, these, those]); as well as the quantifiers some, any, every, and so on; and numerals (but not ordinals or fractions).
What articles do for us is determine whether the noun that follows is definite or indefinite. There is a difference between the chair and a chair; a difference between those shoes and these shoes, the shoes, the category "shoes," and more.
To use articles correctly, one has to distinguish, either consciously or unconsciously, between count and noncount nouns. Count nouns can be counted off individually and have plurals: car, cars; child, children; dog, dogs; guitar, guitars; memoir, memoirs. Noncount nouns cannot: money, milk, confidence, heroin.
The articles a and an can only be used with singular count nouns: a car, a child, a dog, a guitar, a memoir. They cannot be used with count nouns: We do not say a milk, a money, a confidence, a heroin.
But wait, you might say, AHA! We do say "Keith Richards has a certain confidence about him" as well as "Confidence and swagger are necessary ingredients for a Rolling Stones show." Some nouns can be both count and noncount, depending on whether we are using them to describe a category or not. Think of wine. "A wine must have flavor," but would we say "He had a wine"? More probably we'd say "He had a swig of wine, a bottle of wine, a boatload of wine, a barrel of wine, a pint of wine—whatever it took—before a show."
The article the is what we use when we want to indicate specificity, with either a count or a noncount noun. "The child is a terror," "The wine sucked," "I'm seeing a show," "The show was amazing," "I'm reading a memoir," "The memoir was years in the making."
So Keith Richards's title, Life, works in every way. It might refer to his talking about life, the noncount noun referring to our state of animate being here on earth, or the life of a Rolling Stones member, or a life of fantastic experiences and astonishing achievement. Whether a, an, the, or life in general, it's well worth reading, and I recommend it with confidence as a holiday present, for oneself or others.
What's your favorite memoir? Does it start with A, An, The, or no article at all? What did you think of this article? Let us know!
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.