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I was chatting with my boss and asking him about the correct way of reporting my working hours. I realized that I don't know what kind of article I should use in my question.

  • George, what is ['a/'the'/'zero article'] correct way of reporting my working time?

Which article would be right here and why?

Intuitively, I think it should be 'the' because the question describes something unique (though in fact I used the indefinite article 'a'). How could this question be rephrased to use each of the articles (the, a/an, zero article)?

Can you recommend some grammar resources for reading about articles? Feel free to give me some general advice how to become more familiar this part of English grammar.

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  • What language are you coming from, that you don't know which article to use there? Broadly, Western European languages, such as English, French and German do and Eastern European languages do not use articles. The issue is hugely confused by the fact that all those languages do use 'determiners' which serve exactly the same function as 'articles' but articles are not to be treated as determiners. Duh! Again, please, what language are you coming from? Jan 24, 2023 at 23:11
  • @RobbieGoodwin, hey Robbie, i am coming from Ukrainian language. We do not have articles at all. Jan 26, 2023 at 11:31
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    In English, we can never use 'from Ukrainian language'; only either 'from Ukrainian' or 'from the Ukrainian language.' Surely, Ukrainian doesn't have articles as such and ignoring 'that', 'these’ and 'those' how does ‘this Ukrainian language' sound to you? Jan 26, 2023 at 23:43
  • @RobbieGoodwin 'this Ukrainian language' sounds a bit weird to me. It sounds like the speaker wants to emphasize it, like there is more that one Ukrainian language and he means some specific variant of it. In Ukraine we just don't say like that. We just say 'Ukrainian' or 'Ukrainian language' and know there's just one single lang. Jan 27, 2023 at 11:11
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    Yes but ‘this’ isn’t an article… it’s a demonstrative determiner, like ’that, these, those, which etc’ so prescriptively ‘This Ukrainian language’ won’t work. ’This' is an example I had in mind, precisely because it’s used to single one out of several so descriptively ‘This Ukrainian language’ won’t work. Is 'this chair' weird, or 'that table'? Do ‘those knives, these forks or the other spoons' not work in Ukrainian? Articles have no apparent purpose in English, but I suggest they'll be easier to grasp as 'extra determiners' rather than anything alien, or even different. Jan 27, 2023 at 18:03

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If there is a unique correct way, then "the correct way".

If there are several different ways, all of which are "correct" then "a correct way"

The correct way to spell "correct" is C-O-R-R-E-C-T.

A correct way to spell "OK" is O-K-A-Y, but it is also correct to spell it O-K

In your case you would need to make a judgement: is there one correct way, or could there be more than one.

But don't worry too much, since even if you get it wrong, your question is understandable. Nevertheless, for this countable singular noun, a non-zero determined is required so you need either "a" or "the" or something else.

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"Hey George, what is the correct way of reporting my working time?

Here, "the" implies that there is only one correct way. (There may be a lot of incorrect ways.) The makes its noun (or noun phrase) specific.

"Hey George, what is a correct way of reporting my working time?

Here, "a/an [noun]" has its usual meaning of "one example of a/an [noun]". Thus there is the implication that there are several correct ways, and that you are requesting an example of one of those ways.

*"Hey George, what is correct way of reporting my working time?

This is simply wrong. As good general guidance, all singular countable common nouns (here the noun is "way") require a determiner of some kind (a/an, the. this. that, any. my/his/their, etc.)

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Although there may be valid reasons for using the string 'a best practice', and certainly 'a best-seller', 'We each had a best friend we would never abandon', the usual rule, as you suggest, is that superlatives (the highest mountain, the deepest part of the ocean ...), specifying a unique member of a set, take the definite article. As John Lawler states at A best practice instead of the best practice?.

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I'm afraid there are no short cuts to assimilating idiomatic use of articles. It takes decades of exposure to reliable sources (in conversation, good writing ...). More difficult areas are addressed in various questions on ELU. Collins Cobuild have produced a 100+ page monograph on articles (as well as one on determiners in general).

Note that according to Master, there are two 'invisible' articles:

  • the most indefinite zero article (Ø₁)

-- some -- a -- the --

  • the most definite null article (Ø₂)

Ø₁ appears in 'We had chicken for tea'

Ø₂ appears in 'He was eventually elected President of Elbonia'.

Note that substituting 'the' in the first example here would change the meaning by adding specification not originally present, and substituting 'a' in the second example would be nonsensical.

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  • "Roses in your garden look sweet" vs. "The roses in your garden look sweet". Is that correct that first one is less specific and means something like "All roses any time look sweet in your garden". Could it have meaning that the person taking care of the garden does a great job". The second one seems to be more specific and means "The roses we see now in the garden are sweet". Is it correct to say that both statements are valid? TY. Jan 21, 2023 at 14:59
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    "Roses in your garden look sweet" does not sound natural to my ears. "Roses look sweet in your garden [when you grow them ... but rather out of place in Monty's]" works well. "The roses in your garden ..." indeed specifies, identifies. Jan 21, 2023 at 20:00

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