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In my native language, we can say:

I have dog

Because I don't want to say a dog (one dog, how many dogs) or the dog (that dog, the listener don't care which dog).

p.s. after 3 years later, I have to say, why I ask this question, is I still cannot grasp how to use the right 'article word'. sometimes, a noun will use an article, sometimes, a noun could not(or omit) the article word before it. there aren't a formula for this. So, I have to remember all the time! I feel so frustrate

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And in one of my native languages, I can say "Have dog" or "I dog"... This is so confusing! Seriously though, I'd like to see what kind of answers this receives. +1 –  RegDwigнt Jan 27 '11 at 13:26
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Japanese also has no articles. Nor does it distinguish number unless that is essential. 犬を飼っている [inu (w)o ka'te iru] (literally, "dog(s) keeping" or "dog(s) raising") is how one would announce dog ownership. It is not even necessary to specify who is the owner; it would be understood from context. A recent article (no pun intended) on Zapanet announced "iPhoneユーザーの50%は犬を飼っているんだって!" ["50% of iPhone users reportedly own dog(s)"]. Yet still the single kanji for dog (犬) is used. The point, as @Kosmonaut points out, is that each language has its own semantic structure. –  Robusto Jan 27 '11 at 14:58
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@RegDwight: Russian, right? I wonder if there is any language if one can elide further, express dog-ownership with just “Dog!” (possibly suitably inflected). –  PLL Jan 27 '11 at 16:40
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@PLL: well, to some extent, this is actually possible in Russian. You can express "It is raining." by saying "Rain." or "Rains."; "It's cold outside." is simply "Outside cold."; "There are three cars in the garage" is "In garage three cars."; "I am tired." is simply "Tired." and that single word contains information about whether the speaker is male or female. –  RegDwigнt Jan 27 '11 at 17:42
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Why do people think their own language is logical, and other languages (which differ in some way) are not? –  GEdgar Aug 19 '12 at 20:05

6 Answers 6

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Well, first of all, we don't need an article before any noun. I can say:

I like dogs.

As to your question of why, the answer is, "because that is how English works".

The articles perform a discourse function, by indicating new and old information. They often evolve from demonstratives (e.g. "this" and "that"). They evolve independently in unrelated languages. Normally, once an article system becomes a part of a language, it is an all-or-nothing thing. This is not unlike a verbal inflection system, a gender system, or a case system; once the system is in place, it is not optional.

Aside from this, there isn't really a more concrete reason for "why" English works this way.

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@lovespring: There is no evidence to indicate that English is losing its article system. In any case, it wouldn't change that significantly within our lifetimes. –  Kosmonaut Jan 27 '11 at 14:58
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+1: I would be curious if you know examples where article use has been dropped in a language over time, the way inflections and cases have in some languages. I've read that languages trend toward simplification during the course of their evolution; are articles a linguistic "frill" that tends to get trimmed over time? –  Robusto Jan 27 '11 at 15:05
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@lovespring: "I have one or more dogs." –  Kosmonaut Jan 27 '11 at 15:31
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@Robusto: They are clearly not necessary, as many languages do not have them. But many languages have developed them: French and Spanish, for example. So, I wouldn't say flat-out that languages trend toward overall simplification, but that there are clearly things that are more likely to come and go, such as a case system, as opposed to, say, adjectives. As to your question, I can't think of any languages losing their article system, but I think it must have happened. It's an interesting question! –  Kosmonaut Jan 27 '11 at 15:53
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@lovespring: Some things are optional in one language but not another — that's just how it is. In English, if I am talking on the phone, and I am not sure if the other person is male or female, I can avoid it; in Arabic, there are two words for "you": masculine and feminine. So I would have to make a guess (or never say "you")! –  Kosmonaut Jan 27 '11 at 16:01

In some languages it's not necessary to use articles before a noun. Persian and Turkish are the examples. For example:

I have dog.

It means that I have a dog. So not using an article before a singular noun is similar to using an article. Also they can use other kinds of articles after the noun.

In these languages: I have dog. = I have a dog.

But in some other languages like English and Arabic you should use an article before a noun to make it clear and specific. Otherwise it's not clear for the reader. So I think that depends on the language.

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I could just as easily flip this around and say, why does your native language not use articles? To me:

I have dog

Isn't specific enough. Do you have one dog? Multiple dogs? A specific dog?

My point is, different languages have different rules, which make sense to native speakers because that's what they're used to. Consequently languages with different rules make less sense.

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Well, in most languages without articles I know, nouns have tenses, so "I have dog" clearly refers to a single dog, and not multiple dogs. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 27 '11 at 14:12
    
@ShreevatsaR: So one could theorize that since English doesn't have tenses to clarify quantity 0, 1, or many, we have to use articles. Neither necessarily better just a different mechanism. –  grieve Jan 27 '11 at 14:48
    
@ElendilTheTall If you say you got a dog. but you don't want to tell how many dogs, then what will you say? –  lovespring Jan 27 '11 at 15:07
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@ShreevatsaR: Most languages you know without articles may express number, but that is not all languages. Chinese and Japanese are two examples of languages which do not express number as a grammatical category (of course there are ways to express it if you do need to be specific) –  Colin Fine Jan 27 '11 at 15:21
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No, technically it's not: You do have a girlfriend. You also have others. It might be considered a lie of omission, but so might leaving out the article altogether. In any case, does your language not have plurals? Does 'girl' not imply one girl and 'girls' imply multiple girls? –  user3444 Jan 27 '11 at 16:21

This is not an answer to the question about English articles; but it seems from comments that you may actually be more interested in how to say you keep an unspecified number of dogs. So, some alternative ways one could achieve that:

  • Make a more specific statement mentioning one dog:

[Showing someone a photo.] This is my dog Bruno.

  • Make a statement going covering a wide time period:

I’ve owned dogs for about ten years now.

(This implies you’ve had more than one dog in total, but leaves open how many you own now.)

  • Make a statment which is not directly about the dogs you own, but implies their existence:

Oh, damn! I forgot to buy dog food today!

I’m definitely a dog person! I’d get really lonely living without a dog.

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English doesn't require an article before a noun. I can write:

Visitors are welcome everyday.
I like pizza.
He knew Latin and Greek.

In English, it is not possible to say you have dogs without to say if it's only one dog, or they are many dogs. Even if you would say I have my dog, that would be interpreted as you have one dog.

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after 3 years later, I have to say, why I ask this question, is I still cannot grasp how to use the right 'article word'. sometimes, a noun will use an article, sometimes, a noun could not(or omit) the article word before it. there aren't a formula for this.

There is actually a "formula" for how to use articles in English. There are a set of rules that have evolved for when a definite or indefinite article is appropriate. Yes, there are special cases; but it's not as difficult as say, memorizing the gender of nouns in some Romance languages.

You can determine which article to place in front of almost any noun by answering three questions:

1. Is the noun countable or uncountable?

A noun is countable if you can have more than one instance of it. I can have three apples, so apple is a countable noun. Luggage is an uncountable noun. Many words can have different countable and uncountable meanings.

2. Is it singular or plural?

Just ask the question: am I referring to more than one instance of something?

3. Is it definite or indefinite?

A noun is definite if it is clear what specific thing you are referring to. Otherwise it is indefinite.

After you answer those questions you can determine which article to use with this table:

                          definite      indefinite
countable singular        the           a, an
countable plural          the           (don't use an article)
uncountable               the           (don't use an article)

Notice the rule of thumb: if the noun is definite, use the article the; if it is indefinite it never takes the article the.

Here's some examples given on that University of Toronto page I referenced:

countable singular definite

I need to study hardest for the exam that I write next Wednesday.

countable singular indefinite

I have an exam to write this afternoon, and then my summer holiday finally begins.

countable plural definite

The exams that I wrote last year were much easier.

countable plural indefinite

Exams are an inescapable fact of life for most university students.

uncountable singular definite

The importance of studying hard cannot be exaggerated.

uncountable singular indefinite

Do not attach importance to memorizing facts.

There are several special cases in the use of the definite article. I won't go into detail here, but they have to do with special classes of nouns and modified nouns. The rules are actually pretty regular with only a few edge-cases.

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It is clear what I am referring to in the following sentences. Yet, the noun is indefinite: An ugly black cat is on the table and Look, there's a full moon out tonight. –  CarSmack Oct 13 at 20:47

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