Why We Love & Hate Articles

Today in my editing class I was asked why articles (a, an, the, this, that) are weak words since they are so necessary in sentence structure. Great question!

My reply was that in any given situation, you have to make the choice regarding which words are most appropriate and most powerful and best lend themselves to the effect you are trying to create in text.

The issue is that articles are vague. That's what makes them weaker than more specific words.

"A glass" could mean one of many off the shelf and is less specific than "the glass," which presumably is the one glass in a scene, maybe one that was previously identified. Likewise, "his glass" is even more specific. "Joe's glass" even better.

Of course, using "he/his" instead of saying "Joe/Joe's" all the time is also appropriate. Yet I've also seen folks overuse the pronouns. This can be a sign of lazy sentences. And it's not always about substitution, but sometimes the sentences need to be rewritten for more interest.

I had this great mentor, DeWitt H. Scott (Scotty), the head copyeditor for the SF Examiner for 20 years. He also taught at UC Berkeley. Scott taught us to be more critical of weak words , such as articles, instead of always letting them slide by and fill up the page.

We were taught in journalism not to start paragraphs with certain words, articles being high on that list. In "How to Write," Scotty gave this reasoning a funny spin: "When you begin a book, a chapter or a paragraph with 'the' or 'a', it probably will be dull -- or at least the first sentence will be."

Underscoring his point, Scotty assigned point values to words (better than my system in my previous post), so you could add up the value of all your words and see if you had a low score (too many low-value words) or a high score (lots of high-impact verbs and nouns) per page.

When I teach at the University of Washington Extension for the Editing Certificate Program, I tell students the Dick and Jane books are some of the best editing books available. They laugh. I explain: "See Dick run." Verb/noun/verb. So precise. Little else is needed to communicate.

No one's saying you should eliminate ALL articles. Heaven forbid. They are my friends, though I may invite them less readily than their verb and noun cousins.

Again, editing is about the making choices to fit the context of the situation. But better to have the critical eye than not, right?