English is a funny language. (That‚Äôs funny as in weird, not funny as in ha-ha.) We sometimes use articles in front of words, and we sometimes don‚Äôt. Depending on what we do, the meaning can change. But when we use articles at all, it follows few rules.
‚ÄúShe scored little above average on the IQ test‚ÄĚ is a lot different from ‚Äúshe scored a little above average on the IQ test.‚ÄĚ The first is more derisive, more insulting, implying she could barely eke out an average score. The second, with the article ‚Äúa,‚ÄĚ puts her in the top half, even though just barely.
The article ‚Äúa‚ÄĚ is an ‚Äúindefinite article,‚ÄĚ meaning it could refer to many things of its kind. If you plan to go to an animal shelter, you might say ‚ÄúI‚Äôm going to get a dog.‚ÄĚ But if you already have a dog and you say ‚ÄúI‚Äôm going to get the dog,‚ÄĚ you are being definitive about which dog you going to get. So you use the definite article ‚Äúthe.‚ÄĚ
We used to say ‚Äúthe Ukraine,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúthe Sudan,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúthe Congo,‚ÄĚ but that was when they were attached to other countries. Now, according to the CIA World Factbook, the only nations with ‚Äúthe‚ÄĚ in front of their names are ‚ÄúThe Gambia‚ÄĚ and The Bahamas.‚ÄĚ (OK, so it‚Äôs ‚ÄúDemocratic Republic of the Congo‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúRepublic of the Congo,‚ÄĚ but the ‚Äúthe‚ÄĚ is no longer at the front.) And it‚Äôs just ‚ÄúUnited States,‚ÄĚ according to the CIA Factbook.
Over at the U.N., only a few member nations get ‚Äúthe‚ÄĚ in front of their names. One is ‚ÄúThe Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,‚ÄĚ which in 2006 split from Serbia, which itself had split from what the U.N. refers to as ‚ÄúThe Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia‚ÄĚ in 1992. ‚ÄúThe Gambia‚ÄĚ is ‚ÄúGambia, (Republic of The)‚ÄĚ at the U.N., but ‚ÄúBahamas‚ÄĚ loses its article completely. Our nation is ‚ÄúUnited States of America,‚ÄĚ still without its ‚Äúthe.‚ÄĚ
So why do we say ‚Äúthe United States,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúthe United Kingdom,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúthe Russian Federation,‚ÄĚ but not ‚Äúthe Britain‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúthe Russia‚ÄĚ?
That‚Äôs the funny part of English. As the BBC wrote in 2012, we seem to automatically put the definite ‚Äúthe‚ÄĚ in front of compound nouns and adjectives like ‚Äúthe United States.‚ÄĚ We often put ‚Äúthe‚ÄĚ in front of a definitive geographical feature, like ‚Äúthe Sahara‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúthe Alps,‚ÄĚ and we usually do that with deserts, mountain ranges and rivers. And the people of a country are always definite, as in ‚Äúthe British‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúthe Russians.‚ÄĚ But we‚Äôre not consistent. We love ‚Äúthe ballet‚ÄĚ and go to ‚Äúthe movies,‚ÄĚ but we might ‚Äúwatch TV or ‚Äúwatch the TV.‚ÄĚ
Whether to capitalize ‚Äúthe‚ÄĚ is usually a matter of style. The Associated Press says to capitalize ‚Äúthe‚ÄĚ in front of a newspaper name only when the newspaper so prefers; New York Times style says: ‚ÄúFor consistency, capitalize the article in every magazine or journal name commonly written or spoken with an article.‚ÄĚ The Chicago Manual of Style goes the opposite way, lowercasing the article before publication names. Unless the publication is not in English, in which case the article should be capitalized, as in El Pa√≠s or Al-Akhbar. Sigh. (CJR looks to the publication‚Äôs nameplate for guidance.)
It‚Äôs also a matter of style, not accuracy, whether to follow the capitalization preferred by an entity, like ‚ÄúThe Ohio State‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúThe Who.‚ÄĚ But every stylebook says it‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Hague.‚ÄĚ Sigh.
The British drop some articles we don‚Äôt. Someone is ‚Äúin hospital‚ÄĚ in common British English; we make it definite, saying they are ‚Äúin the hospital.‚ÄĚ But someone is ‚Äúin jail,‚ÄĚ no article needed, in British and American English (though the Brits might spell it ‚Äúgaol‚ÄĚ).
Now comes the fun part, If the noun begins with a vowel or a vowel sound, the indefinite article becomes ‚Äúan,‚ÄĚ as in ‚Äúan apple.‚ÄĚ If you don‚Äôt pronounce (aspirate) the ‚Äúh‚ÄĚ in a word like ‚Äúhour,‚ÄĚ you want ‚Äúan hour,‚ÄĚ not ‚Äúa hour.‚ÄĚ But if you aspirate the ‚Äúh‚ÄĚ in a word like ‚Äúhowitzer,‚ÄĚ you go back to ‚Äúa howitzer.‚ÄĚ That‚Äôs why it‚Äôs ‚Äúa historic moment,‚ÄĚ not ‚Äúan historic moment.‚ÄĚ You can have ‚Äúa herb‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúan herb,‚ÄĚ depending on whether you pronounce the ‚Äúh.‚ÄĚ
And that‚Äôs also why it‚Äôs ‚Äúa New York University student‚ÄĚ but ‚Äúan NYU student.‚ÄĚ Even though the letter ‚ÄúN‚ÄĚ is a consonant, its pronunciation begins with a vowel sound.
So let‚Äôs be definite about this. As Bryan A. Garner wrote in Garner‚Äôs Modern English Usage, ‚ÄúAnyone who sounds the h‚Äď in words of the type here discussed should avoid pretense and use a. An humanitarian is, judged even by the most tolerant standards, a pretentious humanitarian.‚ÄĚ
Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Source: https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/definite-indefinite-articles.php