Articles -- a writing tool


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  1. #1

    Articles -- a writing tool

    I'm opening an investigation into the use of articles (a/an and the) in English fiction.

    Honestly, I thought this was a boring topic; I am quite surprised to find it isn't. I think I see some authors getting them wrong; I see them being used brilliantly. Who knew that was possible? I think determiners (that book, her book) will enter the conversation, which will be good.
    English is a good language for people who like to be creative and expressive, not for people who want words to fit into boxes and stay there.

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  2. #2
    One of the basic "rules" seems to be that the first mention of something gets a and the rest get the.

    She picked up a book. She started reading the book.
    I don't think that so-called "rule" can be thrown out, but it has a lot of exceptions that question its validity. The biggest problem is how often books begin with the. What is the first sentence of your book or story? The first sentence of the last story I wrote:

    She felt the pill in her hand.
    I'm pretty sure that, in modern fiction writing, that use of the is common and perfect.
    English is a good language for people who like to be creative and expressive, not for people who want words to fit into boxes and stay there.

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  3. #3
    I never learned grammar in school (except in French, which I promptly forgot), but your first example appears to be a typical use which introduces an object normally. The second is a literary usage which gives me a sudden introduction and the urge to ask... What's that important pill up to?

    I thought I had more to add, but that's it.
    I sprayed spot remover on my dog and now he's gone. - S. Wright.

  4. #4
    These articles are something I know intrinsically, but I could not even guess at the rules behind them.
    I simply know when they should be used, but not why or any definitions behind them.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by EmmaSohan View Post
    I'm pretty sure that, in modern fiction writing, that use of the is common and perfect.
    Yeah, I see "The" used for newly-introduced nouns frequently in fiction. I like the flavor that it adds.
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  6. #6
    Global Moderator Squalid Glass's Avatar
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    Grammatically, definite and indefinite articles have specific purposes, but in fiction, definite articles can be used for dramatic effect, especially at the beginning of a work.
    "I don't do anything with my life except romanticize and decay with indecision."

    "America I've given you all and now I'm nothing."

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Squalid Glass View Post
    Grammatically, definite and indefinite articles have specific purposes, but in fiction, definite articles can be used for dramatic effect, especially at the beginning of a work.
    I decided that a cookie is more abstract than the cookie.

    I want a cookie
    I want the cookie on the table.
    The cookie on the table is a type of cookie, with a shape and weight and location. "A cookie" just has the features of a cookie, and there is no real cookie yet. So using the instead of a makes things more concrete and real.

    And at the start there can't be any confusion about whether something has been mentioned before. Ha, even the title. An Old Man and a Sea? A Scarlet Letter?

    But this is from the middle of a book:

    It's getting dark and the scent of ganga is thick in the air. We carry the bags of ice to the coolers that line the patio . (Instructions for the End of the World, Kain,page 112)
    The scent, coolers, and patio seem to all be new. But I admit I prefer coolers over the coolers.
    English is a good language for people who like to be creative and expressive, not for people who want words to fit into boxes and stay there.

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    Global Moderator Squalid Glass's Avatar
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    Of course “a” is more abstract than “the.” Hence, “a” is indefinite and “the” is definite. My point is that fiction writers often use the definite article for dramatic effect, i.e., to create tension even when something hasn’t been defined.

    ”The man in black fled across the desert ...”

    The specificity, in my mind, adds a dramatic flair here. In normal circumstances, without any prior introduction, the indefinite article would make more sense here. But because King wants a stronger effect, he uses the definite.
    "I don't do anything with my life except romanticize and decay with indecision."

    "America I've given you all and now I'm nothing."

  9. #9
    While I agree use of the definite 'the' does often lend itself to dramatic affect, sometimes the opposite works. The title of Arthur Miller's play "A View From The Bridge" is interesting because it combines both in a deliberate order.

    I wonder what the effect would be of swapping them?

    "The View From The Bridge"
    "A View From A Bridge"
    "The View From A Bridge"

    It seems to me all four options create slightly different effects. The View From The Bridge implies ONE view from ONE bridge, A View From A Bridge implies non-specificity of everything, the others some way between. Depending on what the intent of the work is, each could be dramatically effective in different ways.

    As it is, the use of A View From The Bridge works because the bridge is definite (it's Brooklyn Bridge) and this specific information creates a fixed location which is accurate for the plot (which is entirely set in a single neighborhood adjacent to the bridge). On the other hand, that is the only fixed part of the story, which encompasses different views and different cultural norms colliding within a family. Therefore the vagueness of the indefinite works, as does the specificity of the definite: It would not make sense thematically to refer to 'The View...' and it would not make sense geographically to refer to '...A Bridge'*.

    *I think it could make dramatic sense to speak about a specific location/object/being in indefinite terms (i.e going through the desert on "a horse with no name") if the dramatic intent is to somehow create a sense of anonymity or humbleness.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Ralph Rotten View Post
    These articles are something I know intrinsically, but I could not even guess at the rules behind them.
    I simply know when they should be used, but not why or any definitions behind them.
    I'm guessing that a/the/any native English speaker will be reasonably good at articles. But . . .

    Georgie pulled into the driveway, swerving to miss a bike.
    That's the first sentence of Landlines. I like:

    Georgie pulled into their driveway, swerving to miss Alice's bike.
    I advise using determiners that aren't articles (such as her and that).

    I gave her a playful jab on the arm. (10th Anniversary)
    The article avoids a repetition of "her", I guess. But it's jarring to me.
    English is a good language for people who like to be creative and expressive, not for people who want words to fit into boxes and stay there.

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