When to use definite and indefinite articles

“On a day that Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe admitted the virus was now being spread through community transmission, the government was toying with the idea of either locking down the entire country or the four counties of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale that have been declared hot-spots”.

This quote from a local daily caught the attention of someone at The Media Observer (TMO) who, mockingly, wrote; “You can imagine government officials gathered somewhere enjoying a cold beer, biting chicken wings and breaking out into uproarious laughter as they toyed with the idea of locking down the country. To “toy with” means to consider (an idea) casually”.

While what offended the critic at TMO was the word ‘toying’, he or she proceeded to muddy the water by introducing several grammatical errors.

First, a gathering is described as ‘an assembly or meeting of people for a specific purpose’. Such groupings include family, organisational or society gatherings.

To, therefore, suggest a gathering can enjoy ‘a cold beer’ is to mislead. In his/her enthusiasm, the critic failed to note that ‘a’, classified as an indefinite article, would render his or her observation ridiculous. There are two types of articles in the English Language, classified as definite and indefinite. Articles tell us whether the nouns they precede are specific or nonspecific.

Beer is either canned or bottled. By saying ‘a cold beer’ (singular), the writer implied that one bottle randomly picked from a crate (there could have been many crates) or ‘the crate’ (meaning there was only one crate) was shared among the group of people making up the gathering.

If the critic wanted to be understood, he or she should have avoided the use of determiners ‘a’ and ‘the’ (indefinite and definite articles). Thus, “officials gathered somewhere enjoying cold beer” does not leave room for ambiguity. Anyone reading this would understand that everybody in the group had his or her own cold beer (singular/plural) to drink.

“Breaking out into laughter” is ungrammatical. ‘Break out’ (two words) is mainly used to mean ‘escape’, ‘flare’, or ‘erupt’. Prisoners sometimes break out of jail. Birds break out of confinement.

War breaks out. Where laughter is concerned, we say ‘break into laughter’, ‘burst into laughter’ or ‘break up in laughter’. Thieves ‘break into’ homes or premises, etcetera.

There are other words that can be added to ‘break’ to give us different meanings. These include ‘break away’ (escape), ‘break down’ (be overcome with emotion), ‘breakdown’ (mechanical failure), ‘break through’ (success in an endeavour), ‘break with (quarrel with), ‘break off (get detached from something).

Additionally, some idiomatic expressions feature the word ‘break’. They include; ‘Break a leg’ which, contrary to what it seems to convey at first glance, is to wish someone good luck. It has nothing to do with the wish that someone’s leg should literally break. “Break out of your shell” – to urge someone to stop being shy.

‘Break a sweat’ – to urge someone to put in a little bit more effort. ‘Break new ground’ means to start a new venture or start excavation work for a new building. ‘Break someone’s heart’- to cause someone grief. ‘Break the deadlock’ -to be the first to score or earn a point in a competition.

“Biting chicken” is not ungrammatical, it is simply a poor choice of words considering that some words have several meanings depending on the context. As such, the casual use of some words is likely to convey the wrong message because such words, through long use, have come to be associated with specific things.

Appropriate term

Take, for example, the word ‘dog’, which is widely used to refer to a canine or hound. If you write or say; “Don’t dog me”, you are likely to be misunderstood at first, not that it is wrong to say so. It would, however, be easier to simply say “Don’t follow me closely”.

To a larger extent, ‘bite’ is used to mean ‘using teeth to inflict injury’. It also means to ‘sink one’s teeth into something’ without necessarily chewing to swallow.

I am sure the government officials the critic referred to did not hold a grudge against some live chicken, neither did they just sink their teeth into the cooked chicken. The appropriate term is ‘chewing’, which means biting and munching food to make it easier to swallow’.

Finally, ‘Locking down the country’ is far removed from the phrasal verb ‘lock down’. While locking means to ‘fasten’ or ‘padlock’’, lock down means ‘state of isolation or restriction’.

Mr Chagema is a copy editor at The Standard. achagema@standardmedia.co.ke 

Subscribe to our newsletter for latest news and updates. You can disable anytime.