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When to Use Articles Before Nouns

The Time? A Time? Or Just Time?

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty
June 4, 2010
Episode #224

Page 2 of 2

Nouns That Can Go Either Way

So what about the noun “time”? On the one hand, you can say “Knock three times,” and “Have a great time,” so “time” can be a countable noun—when it’s referring to particular events. On the other hand, “time” also has a general sense, as in “Time is on my side,” and “Marty McFly traveled through time.” Used this way, “time” is a mass noun. It sounds strange to say, “A time is on my side,” and “Marty McFly traveled through one time.”

In “Thank you for taking time to review my application,” we’re using “time” as a mass noun, so we can omit the “the.” Nevertheless, we can still use a determiner, as long as the determiner doesn’t imply countability. That means it’s also OK to say “the time.” To choose between “time” and “the time,” we need to say more about the definite article.

“The” is called the definite article because you use it when you’re talking about something that is distinguished from other things (in other words, something “defined,” or “definite”). If you say, “The cat crossed the road,” this cat might be distinguished from other things because it’s the only cat in the neighborhood, or just because it’s the only cat mentioned earlier in the conversation.

So if you write, “Thank you for taking the time to review my application,” that indicates you’re talking about a definite amount of time: whatever amount of time it takes to review your application. If, however, you just say, “Thank you for taking time to review my application,” you’re thanking the readers for any amount of time they might take to review your application, even if it’s just a millisecond. For that reason, “Thank you for taking the time” seems like the better option.

The argument isn’t airtight, though. You could argue that it will be obvious to your audience that you are thanking them for taking a sufficient amount of time to review your application; that only perverse, hostile readers would understand it as thanking them for taking any old amount of time; and therefore, it’s safe to leave out the “the.” All I can say at this point is that both options are used in the real world, and both are grammatically and stylistically defensible.

“A,” the Indefinite Article

Before we finish, let’s get to the rule for using the indefinite article “a.” It’s called the indefinite article because you use it when you’re talking about something that you’re not trying to distinguish from other things. If you say, “A cat crossed the road,” it could be any cat. If you say, “I wish a cat would cross the road,” there might not even be a cat.

Summary

In short, with countable singular nouns, you have to have a determiner. Use whatever  determiner you need; in particular, use “the” if you’re distinguishing the noun from other things; use “a” if you’re not. With proper nouns, plural nouns, and mass nouns, determiners aren’t necessary, though you can still use them depending on the meaning you’re after; but remember not to use  “a” or any other determiner that implies counting with a mass noun.

Literal Minded

Neal Whitman has a doctoral degree in linguistics and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com, and the podcast was read by Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

References

Davies, M. Corpus of Contemporary American English, 1990-2010. Brigham Young University. http://www.americancorpus.org/

Huddleston. R. An Introduction to the Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G.K. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.  Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Related Articles

“Less” Versus “Fewer”: A Question of Mass Nouns and Count Nouns
Collective Nouns
Is “Data” a Mass Noun or a Count Noun?

Cat March 2010 image, Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia Commons.  CC BY SA-3.0

 

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