August 16, 2008

Article problems

I've heard that one of the things that Japanese students who are studying English have the most problem with is learning how and when to use the definite and indefinite article. That's because Japanese has no equivalent.

Here's a beautiful example (via): "Fly with the wind. Have a scent of the earth. Become a close friend of the nature. After all, you are on the record!"

That's good enough so that it doesn't deserve to be dismissed as Engrish. But it isn't quite right, either. There are six articles in there, and five are pretty much right.

If you were an English teacher, how would you explain why there shouldn't be an article in front of "nature", when all the others are right? I don't know if I could really come up with anything better than "well, that's just how it is."

I guess the reason is that "earth" in this context refers to a thing, but "nature" is a collective plural. Nature isn't one thing, so you can't use the definite article with it.

Then you have to explain that "nature" has multiple meanings, and for some of the other meanings the definite article is completely correct, such as in the phrase "that is the nature of things".

UPDATE: Actually, at the end they may have meant "You are on record!" That article may have been wrong, too. I'm not absolutely certain what they were trying to say. (It would probably help if I had a clue what the game is about.)

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Japanese at 08:13 PM | Comments (21) | Add Comment
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1 I'm certain half of mine are wrong too.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at August 16, 2008 08:55 PM (/ppBw)

2 I haven't noticed too much of a problem with you, Pete. I know English is your second language, but you've been living here like twenty years (or more? I'm not sure when you came over), and used English as your primary language all that time. I do very occasionally see you create a construction which isn't really quite English, but pointing that kind of thing out to furriners isn't couth.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 16, 2008 09:36 PM (+rSRq)


There are some people who just have a genius for language, and can absorb it through their skin. When I lived in Massachusetts I worked with an Iranian. His English was perfect. In fact, he spoke with just a trace of a Boston accent.

It being the way of things, I figured his parents had immigrated and he'd either been born here or had grown up here. I was completely wrong. It turned out that he'd come to the US to attend college. He's just one of those people who have that ability to soak up languages.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 16, 2008 09:41 PM (+rSRq)

4 I've copy-edited papers by physicists for whom English is a rather distant second language, and article usage was always one of the toughest things to explain.

Personally, I think almost all such explanations are rather ad hoc. It's just what sounds good to [ahem] the experienced ear. Or "an experienced ear". Or "experienced ears".

Compare "friend of nature" with "friend of the trees" or "friend of the forest". However, "friend of the forests" doesn't  sound right to me. "Friend of Trees" only sounds right as a name, like "Dances with Wolves".

Another example: Ardmore, Glenfiddich -- but The Glenlivet. (I don't know how much of that is essentially advertising, and how much is natural usage with single malt afficiandos. )

And see here [scroll down]: "The usage of definite and indefinite articles is one of the hardest things for speakers of other languages to master, because it's often entirely arbitrary — why are you in town but in the village or in the city? And British and American usage sometimes differs; wounded Brits end up in hospital, while Yanks are in the hospital. Alas, I don't have any easy rules that are even a little helpful — all I can suggest is that non-native speakers pay close attention to the actual usage of articles. Sorry."

Posted by: refugee at August 17, 2008 09:33 AM (l5DzU)


Large parts of the English language are effectively arbitrary. Some of the rules are so flexible as to render them meaningless. There is, for example, our tendency to violate parts of speech, by using verbing nouns and nouning verbs, and using them both as adjectives.

Part of why we can get away with that is because English is inflected, and inflections are (usually) used in a very regular fashion. So when you take a noun and conjugate it like a verb, a native speaker understands what you're doing.

Of course, we only usually use inflections regularly. German has about 60 strong verbs; English has several hundred, and they pretty much have to be memorized. Nor is there any rhyme or reason to which verbs are strong; "walk" and "crawl" are weak but "run" is strong. And the single most used verb in the language, the copula, is also the single most irregular verb in the language. (Even worse than my favorite "go/went/gone".)

Add to that the sheer size of the vocabulary in the language, and our tendency to use synonyms routinely (in order to prevent ear fatigue) and you have one of the most difficult languages there is for non-speakers to learn.

Naturally, it's also the most important language on the planet, and thus the one most desirable to know.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 17, 2008 10:16 AM (+rSRq)

6 My mother made me to study English when I was 10 (like you said, desirable to know) and threw a tantrum when I selected German in the middle school. 8 years down the road I could kinda sorta read scientific literature, and with the advent of the Internet, write e-mail. My speech only became useable for practical purposes when I went to work for an American company at the ripe age of 28. Even so, when I moved to California, employees of Burger King summoned a translator from Spainish, because I was unable to order myself a "whopper" (and naturally they assumed me to be a Mexican). 30 years of studying and clerks in stores still ask me where I am from.

Yes, I'm that dumb. But let's just use it as a scale factor, and switch to Japanese.

Having been through it once, I consider Japanese significantly simpler to learn than English, even including the social forms. It's only a matter of a proper worldview and mindset. After only 4 years of irregular classes, I can get a hotel reservation, buy train tickets, make simple orders, and watch TV newscasts. That's almost the level it took me 15 to 18 years to reach before. But in an inversion from English, kanji is a bloody murder (I think I know about 800, not enough to read anything). There was never a time when I spoke English better than I wrote it, but with Japanese it is now.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at August 17, 2008 10:38 AM (/ppBw)

7 Well, to an extent, this is all to be expected--while England (and later, us) may have globalized the language through worldwide presence, it probably would never have become so strongly prevalent if the language wasn't so readily adaptable.  The old cliche about English mugging other languages and going through their pockets for spare words is fairly accurate.  Heck, Yahoo has on its top page right now a link to a video series named "Ultra Kawaii".  And when other languages don't have a word ready for us to steal, we just make one up.

The downside, of course, is that all of these different words from different languages make for a really large, extremely messy vocabulary.  I'm not sure that there's a really good way to deal with this; I suspect to some extent we'll just have to muddle through with technological aids and patience.

Posted by: BigD at August 17, 2008 02:32 PM (JJ4vV)

8 Credit where credit is due, and he doesn't get it often enough: the mugging quote is from James Nicoll on Usenet -- rec.arts.sf-lovers, to be exact.

I'm suspicious that those purloined words came with odds bits of grammatical pocket lint and chewing gum as wells, which is why our rules are so damned unruly.

Posted by: refugee at August 17, 2008 04:19 PM (l5DzU)

9 *sigh*

For "as wells" read "as well".

Posted by: refugee at August 17, 2008 04:29 PM (l5DzU)


Generally, borrowed words don't bring any grammatical baggage with them, except that some purists who borrow words from Greek and Latin insist on using the original plurals.

One of my pet peeves is people who treat the word "data" as a plural. It's true that in Latin that is a plural, with the singular being "datum", but no one uses "datum". Besides which, strictly speaking the only thing we can refer to as a "datum" is a single bit.

To me, "data" is an example of a collective plural which is treated grammatically as a singular. "data is", not "data are". And I don't give a damn what Latin thinks about it.

Nicoll has his own Wikipedia page, primarily because of that quote. They give the authoritative version of the quote thusly:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

Which many people, including me, find very pleasing precisely because it is so true.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 17, 2008 06:10 PM (+rSRq)

11 The English language developed out of the most colossal example of linguistic miscegenation in history.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 17, 2008 06:12 PM (+rSRq)

12 If we could just figure out how to make anime fans reproduce faster than the rest of the population (well, by a large factor, I admit!), we might end up with an even more colossal example.

"Ultra kawaii," indeed....

Posted by: ubu at August 17, 2008 06:20 PM (IMG6d)

13 How the heck are you going to make anime fans reproduce faster than the rest of the population? Talk about casting against type!

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at August 17, 2008 06:39 PM (pfysU)

14 Ouch, a low blow!

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 17, 2008 06:46 PM (+rSRq)

15 ...but, accurate.

Posted by: BigD at August 17, 2008 07:40 PM (JJ4vV)

How the heck are you going to make anime fans reproduce faster than the rest of the population?

Hand out free nekomimi at the shopping mall?

Posted by: Pixy Misa at August 17, 2008 08:38 PM (PiXy!)


Melyvn Bragg's book and the TV series, The Adventure of English, are both really excellent.  I read Anglo-Saxon (Old English) as well as the London and Northwest Midland Middle Engish dialects (as well as Chaucerian and so on).  We all need our strange hobbies....

Anyway, having therefore studied and read literature in English from its inception to the modern day, I have come to realize that the complexity and difficulty of English are essential parts of its strength.  Because of the vast number of borrowings and shades of meaning, it is arguably the most expressive and flexible language in the world.  Like calculus, it may be hard to learn but it has tremendous power to solve certain problems, and ca do so with a precision few other languages can offer. 

(Hmm. Looking back at this comment, it occurs to me that "strengths" is a nine-letter word with only one vowel. Not many of those around.)

Posted by: Toren at August 17, 2008 08:51 PM (B7yHJ)

18 Hand out free nekomimi at the shopping mall?

Don't forget about the instruction sheets... most otaku would likely need them.

Posted by: Wonderduck at August 17, 2008 09:04 PM (AW3EJ)











Posted by: Brickmuppet at August 18, 2008 03:56 AM (neDWJ)

20 Step one. It's always step one that gets me, dammit....

Posted by: ubu at August 18, 2008 06:43 AM (dhRpo)

21 I think we've had enough topic drift here.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 18, 2008 07:33 AM (+rSRq)

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