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I always wanted to know if you folks notice when someone is skipping articles during a basic talk?

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    In fact, it's noticed in your post title. It would be normal to say "the word 'the'", not "'the' word'", just as it's normal to notice that the word "does" doesn't agree in number with "speakers". It's noticed, but it's not a source of hard feelings to get over. – Jack O'Flaherty Dec 10 '20 at 15:08
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    Yes, omitting articles immediately marks one as a non-native speaker and it definitely sounds odd. In fact, when a native speaker mimics or parodies foreign speakers, messing with the articles is one of the first things they do. Most people will still be able to understand what you mean, but it definitely stands out. – TypeIA Dec 10 '20 at 19:56
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    @BrianDrummond In Soviet Russia, articles drop you. – Acccumulation Dec 10 '20 at 22:34
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    @StevenGregory I’d argue that you’re the one who doesn’t speak ‘English’ if you try to explain that regularly. It’s a fixed phrase with a well defined meaning in some dialects of English that happens to be illogical, but that does not mean that usage is bad English (the supposition it is bad English is no different from the arguments that double negations are bad English, they’re perfectly valid grammatically based on actual usage, they just happen to not follow old rules of ‘grammar’ that were instituted by people who thought formal logic was the only valid way to communicate). – Austin Hemmelgarn Dec 10 '20 at 23:33
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    Native speakers notice when non-native speakers do pretty much anything native speakers wouldn't do. – NotThatGuy Dec 10 '20 at 23:53

11 Answers 11

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Articles (and determiners in general) in English are important because it connects the flow of expectations between speaker/writer and listener/reader and helps one side understand what's expected to be understood or shared experiences on the other side.

Definite articles let the speaker/writer say "I expect you to know which X I'm talking about" - and that prompts the listener/reader to ask (or mark as unknown) if actually not known.

Since English doesn't have a strong word-ending/particle system like Spanish, Russian, etc. it's also a signal that a word is meant as a noun and not a verb, which sometimes critical to a sentence.

So native English speakers will definitely notice, even though most of the time a listener will be able to figure out what you mean.

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Yes, absolutely.

Some don't mind, some do, but all will notice.

It's jarring to the native listener, and immediately betrays a less-than-fluent non-native speaker.

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    Yes. This is partly because the articles are hard to explain, even for the native speakers. Somehow, we each get a feel with our native languages, where to use an article, and which one to use! – Conrado Dec 11 '20 at 16:53
  • @Conrado That's right! – Asteroids With Wings Dec 11 '20 at 16:57
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Yes, we do notice but it seldom affects the meaning. Some people get upset by things like that others do not. When Chinese colleagues give me their work to edit I always put the articles back in because I know some journal reviewers get annoyed by things like that but I would like to think I am not so affected.

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    I think it is right to put them in, because if the language is idiomatic then the reader reads it more smoothly and doesn't get distracted by grammatical oddities. This doesn't mean that I'm offended by the omission or that I would bear a grudge against the author responsible - of course not – rjpond Dec 10 '20 at 16:43
  • Yes, @rjpond perhaps annoyed was too strong. Perhaps a form of words about avoiding unconscious biases might have been better. – mdewey Dec 10 '20 at 17:01
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    It's right to put the articles back because it's correct. When someone asks you to proofread your document, they're not just looking for you to check technical content, they also want you to check for any obvious typos and grammatical errors which will stop readers from understanding it as easily. When they aren't native speakers of the language, that puts extra responsibility on you to fix those kinds of issues . – Graham Dec 10 '20 at 23:08
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    The more fluent you are in the language, and the faster and more intuitively you read, the more that unnatural features like missing articles will interrupt your flow, slow down your reading, and make comprehension harder. – gidds Dec 10 '20 at 23:09
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    I agree with @gidds, and I'd add that if a non-native speaker writes a text, and a native speaker reads it and notices that a sentence is not grammatical, that does not mean that the reader will necessarily find it easy to guess what the writer meant and be confident that their guess is correct. They might even suspect that a part of the sentence contains a mistake even if that part is correct. – Rosie F Dec 11 '20 at 10:20
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Yes. Even online. Your English could be otherwise impeccable but if you skip more than one word when writing I will immediately think you are a non-native speaker.

The words you choose to omit also matters. Sometimes a native speaker will also omit words out of laziness but the words that are chosen to be omitted are never as awkward as the ones omitted by non-native speakers so you can tell the difference. There's multiple levels of unimportance. This is only in writing though. Articles and words that affect flow and connectivity are not omitted by native speakers while speaking; They're much more likely to get mashed together.

When non-native speakers omit words during writing, they not only omit the wrong words, but not enough words so it is obvious that effort is being put into the sentence and they're not just being lazy. A native speaker being lazy will not only omit the correct words, but omit even more words than a non-native speaker might.

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    @Oddthinking Non-native speakers don't omit words like "the" and if they do omit words it is always different words than non-native speakers almost to the point you don't notice. Native speakers are more likely to mash words together than omit them, I think. – DKNguyen Dec 11 '20 at 14:19
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    @DKNguyen Excellent point. There's a huge difference between one of my friends online writing "Okay I go bed now", which reads as a joke, and somebody saying "We need to take car to repair garage", which instantly reads as a non-native speaker. – Darth Pseudonym Dec 11 '20 at 14:39
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    @Barmar Meaning if you type like that all the time, although people won't think you are a non-native speaker they will think you are a caveman. – DKNguyen Dec 11 '20 at 15:13
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    @DKNguyen Or like the old "Me Tarzan, you Jane" trope. – Barmar Dec 11 '20 at 15:16
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    @PeterMortensen I find it very unlikely that more than 90% of non-native English speakers omit articles. Perhaps you only notice non-native speakers which omit articles? (Fun fact: This comment contains no articles) – user253751 Dec 11 '20 at 18:40
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Yes, quite a lot.

Even when I'm hearing a native English speaker read someone else's writing, if the articles get dropped, I will sometimes double check to see where that person is quoting from.

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Very much so. Choice of articles distinguishes between known/unknown, here/there, us/them, and similar. Omission of articles leaves the intended distinction unresolved and may substantially change the meaning of the sentence.

For instance, if you and I are in a car and one says to the other "the car is on fire". This means the car we are in is on fire and we should take immediate, responsive action to protect our lives and property. If instead one says to the other "a car is on fire", the means some other car is on fire and we should take different action to protect our lives and property. If the article is omitted, there is no way to know which category of action to take; the function of the communication, to indicate which class of actions to take, has not been effected.

If we are reporting a theft. "That man stole the item!" means the specific man that is being indicated (through the existing context, perhaps including the speaker pointing a finger) is the thief. "A man stole the item!" means an unspecified man is the thief, not necessarily one of the men nearby. This changes how the listener internally labels various men -- in the one case one man has a clear "thief" label and in the other, nearby men have a diffuse "non-thief" label. On the other hand, "Man stole the item!" means that the species, mankind, stole the item. This is a huge difference in meaning.

"Let's protest the government!" means this government, the one in power here. "Let's protest a government!" means any government; perhaps choose one with little ability to project power where you are. "Let's protest government!" means to protest the existence of government at all -- without further context, this suggests preference for pure anarchy, not just a change of leadership or a change of policy.

The additional ambiguity in parsing sentences lacking articles is very quickly clear to a native speaker. An exaggerated example is this: "Man store bus." All three words can be verbs or nouns. Without articles, we don't know which of eight intentions is being expressed.

  • noun noun noun: This would be a noun phrase. It references a device for transporting a "man store" (a store that caters to the needs of men, not a store at which one procures men (probably)) or it could describe a vehicle for transporting one to a man store.
  • noun noun verb: This describes the use of public transportation to take customers to a man store.
  • noun verb noun: This commands "man" to stow away "bus", probably be cleaning it, removing volatile fluids and perhaps replacing lubricants.
  • noun verb verb: Verging on grammatical nonsense, this might mean to convey (by bussing) for the purpose of storing a man.
  • verb noun noun: This is a command to take an operating position in the "store bus", which could either be a traveling store in the form of a bus or the bus owned by a store.
  • verb noun verb: Verging on grammatical nonsense, this might be a command to take an operating position in a bus for stores (meaning a means of transporting stores -- typically heavy engineering equipment).
  • verb verb noun: This seems to cross the line into grammatical nonsense.
  • verb verb verb: This seems to cross the line into grammatical nonsense.

Some languages use endings to distinguish verb and noun uses of a (root) word (consider a gerund, for instance) but English does not. Contrast "run to the store" and "a run in my tights" (a long, thin hole in my thin clothing that covers the legs). The word that signals which part of speech is "run" is the article.

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    Nitpick: "man store bus" would never be used to reference a store where you could procure a man bus. You wouldn't put "store" in between those words. You'd instead say "man bus store". "man store bus" might be used to indicate a bus which takes you to the man store, though. – D M Dec 13 '20 at 1:53
  • @DM : Yes. Agreed. I plead bamboozlement by ambiguity. – Eric Towers Dec 13 '20 at 5:32
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It also might depend on geography - there are locations where native English speakers omit the word "the" in sentences. The first example that comes to mind is Yorkshire in England itself - can't get more native than that. To hear great examples of this, just watch any BBC TV series which is set in Yorkshire, especially in the countryside/non-urban areas.

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I'm not a native speaker (my native language is German), and I do notice it and get irritated (slightly). Because German has articles too (and basically at the same positions as in English), it really feels like there is something logically missing.

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  • It does appear that we Germans get irritated easily when others make mistakes. So much so that we agreed to speak English to each other. Americans are much more relaxed when their language is concerned; out of necessity, one must presume. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Dec 13 '20 at 0:48
  • Could be. I don't want to make anyone feel bad, I would try to conceal my feelings as much as possible. But yes, inside I'm still thinking: "Come on, this can't be so difficult...". Just being completely honest here. Anyway, speaking of Americans: I once asked an American fellow student whether "Let f be continuous function" was acceptable in mathematical writing (in German, it is not uncommon). Her instant reply was: "Only if you're Russian". – jacques Dec 13 '20 at 2:45
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Yes, it is noticeable to native speaker if non-native speaker leaves out article. Whether it is definite article or indefinite article, matter is same. Interesting thing is it doesn't change meaning much — y cn lv t vwls s wll nd t's stll dcphrbl. rbs d t ll tm. (K, tht ws hrd n.) Ntrl lngg s vry rdndnt.

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    The last sentence is extremely annoying, distracting and impossible to understand. Omitting articles and vowels are not the same at all. – Mari-Lou A Dec 12 '20 at 15:12
  • @Mari-LouA I wanted to give an example of another feature which is "almost, but not quite, entirely" redundant (since, well, the Arabs do it all the time). Well, maybe a little less so. I'm sorry to annoy you, that was not my intention, quite the opposite :-). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Dec 12 '20 at 16:09
  • For those who don't get it: this answer intentionally leaves out all the articles, both the definite one ("the") and the indefinite ones ("a", "an"). The purpose is to show that, even without articles, sentences are still understandable. And the last sentence goes even further: all the vowels are missing, but it's still possible to figure out what the words are. – Fabio says Reinstate Monica Dec 12 '20 at 23:08
  • Putting all the articles and vowels back in, the answer becomes: "Yes, it is noticeable to a native speaker if a non-native speaker leaves out an article. Whether it is a definite article or an indefinite article, the matter is the same. The interesting thing is it doesn't change the meaning much — you can leave out the vowels as well and it's still decipherable. Arabs do it all the time. (Ok, that was a hard one.) Natural language is very redundant." Or at least I hope, as I'm not a native speaker! :-) – Fabio says Reinstate Monica Dec 12 '20 at 23:09
  • @FabiosaysReinstateMonica No no no, it is "the definite article"! ;-) The the. The definitely only the. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Dec 13 '20 at 0:43
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As EMJ referred to, there are even some differences between different areas of English speakers. Being born in the USA, I notice differences when watching British TV shows. Most notably, they refer to "going to hospital" (or "university") where my own background would expect "going to the hospital" or "going to the university".

Does it make it difficult for me to understand? Rarely. Is it noticeable? Absolutely. But no more jarring than things like the spelling of "color" vs. "colour", "loo" vs. "bathroom" etc.

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    "going to university" and "going to the university" are both correct with very different meanings. For example, the postman delivering letters to the dean is "going to the university", but not "going to university". – gnasher729 Dec 13 '20 at 14:46
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It's very noticeable, and very incorrect. But remember native speakers are not necessarily good English speakers and vice versa. So I wouldn't assume that the speaker is non-native.

There are particular mistakes that would by typical for say a native German, or a native French speaker, and some things that are accepted in Indian English but not in British or US English. And mistakes like confusing "their", "there" and "they're" are most likely signs of a native English speaker - to the non-native speaker these are entirely different words that are impossible to confuse, just like you would never write "gazelle" instead of "elephant".

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