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I'm always confused about what articles to use..

Here's the sentence..

They are getting into the state of ennui in married life.

In this sentence, I don't get why 'the' is used in front of 'state of ennui' instead of 'a' or no articles. Also, why are there no articles in front of 'married life'? I assumed it should be 'The married life' since it's a specific married life of "they" (them) in the sentence above..

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    Could you tell what is the source of the sentence? Was it written by a native speaker of English? – CowperKettle Feb 22 '16 at 5:53
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    Where is the sentence from? It sounds stilted as written to me, but the "the" in front of ennui might easily be justified if it is well known that there is a state of ennui that married life always eventually descends into. A similar though probably more standard example might be "They are still in the romantic phase of their married life and can't be without each other." Here the "the" in front of romantic phase is justified since it's a specific phase of married life. (Note you don't necessarily have to agree that such phases exist for the sentence to grammatically valid.) – DRF Feb 22 '16 at 5:56
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    I'm not sure about that since this sentence is from a dictionary from my country, so I'm not sure if it's written by a native speaker or not.. – JoAnn Feb 22 '16 at 5:56
  • It's a good practice to point out where the quote comes from, that makes it easier to come up with answers. If a dictionary is written by non-native speakers, it might contain some slightly unnatural sentences. – CowperKettle Feb 22 '16 at 18:15
  • It could also help if you could state your mother tongue. – laugh Feb 22 '16 at 18:29
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The sentence implies that a marriage can be in several states (perhaps 'romance', 'conflict', 'dependence' and 'ennui'.) This particular marriage is moving into one specific state, called 'ennui'. Because it is talking about one specific state, we use the definite article.

You could also write: "They are getting into a state of ennui in married life". This would mean something slightly different - that the marriage was moving into one of several states characterized by 'ennui'. For example it might be getting into 'moderate ennui', 'extreme ennui' etc.

For practical purposes the difference between them is small.

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Some languages don't have an indefinite article ("a") and some don't even have a definite article ("the"), so using these in English might be confusing.

Possible guidelines:

  • Use "the" when referring to something that exists and is either well-known (like "the Empire State building") or you want to point to it specifically (like "the girl in the car over there"). It can also be used in plural ("The kids next door"). It can be thought of as saying "this one, as opposed to other ones".
  • Use "a" for things that are do not exist ("a flying car") or are imaginary ("a previous life"), or non-unique when you don't mean a specific one ("a book"). "A" is not used with plurals ("books") and with some general concepts ("love", "marriage", unless you refer to a specific one... in that case you can use something like "it is a happy marriage". This can be confusing). It is similar in meaning to "some" or "any".
  • No article before names, honorifics, pronouns and genitive pronouns, although they are definite ("Mike", "Queen Ann", "they", "your hat").

In your example: the sentence is about one specific "state of ennui" (it suggests that it is well-known and unique), so "the" is used. "Married life" is a general concept so it is used without an article.

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