I have been learning English intensively for 8 years and have been living and speaking in the UK/USA for the past 5 years. It has been 7 years since I have been thinking in English without the need of translation to my mother tongue, however I have to admit I cannot use the articles in English properly. I could learn all the standard rules (indeed I have), but there are many exceptions as it seems to me. I just do not imagine the right use of the articles automatically.

When writing I frequently come across dilemmas or even trilemmas: a definite or an indefinite article or no article?

I would like a native English speaker to describe to me in detail what exactly one imagines in one's head when hearing a word with no article, an indefinite article and a definite article.

I think in the text I wrote here I managed to use the articles properly, however in more complex situations I waver.

For example my current imagination can be described:

  1. When hearing a word with an indefinite article, I imagine one item of something new I do not have in my consciousness right now or one item for which I am concerned only with its existence, any other item of that type would do.
  2. When hearing a word with a definite article, I search the concept in my head which I already know about, have heard just now or is somewhere present around me or it is something specific that the other speaker tries to convey to me.
  3. When hearing a word without an article I imagine it is either something I cannot count and then the imagination is similar to 1. Or it is the name of something, not necessarily a given name, but the name I use for that concept, e.g. father (referring to my father).
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    Your description of what you imagine seems quite sensible and correct to me. I’m afraid the only thing that will ever get you to just use the articles automatically and not get it wrong is continued practice. The places where you get them wrong at this point will (probably) often be the places where their usage is at its most idiomatic. Rules for ‘when to use’ articles are, by necessity, extremely generic, and I doubt they’d help you much. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 4 '14 at 21:51
  • @JanusBahsJacquet And there are many variations that are "correct*. In your third sentence, both definite articles could be omitted without changing the meaning or seeming off. – bib Jun 4 '14 at 22:08
  • Probably there are no concepts formed. These words are just markers of certain constructions and not others. And, being meaningless, they are available for any distinction anybody wishes to make about anything, regardless. Like talking about dialing the wrong number, as if there were only one. – John Lawler Jun 4 '14 at 22:09
  • I had started answering the question in my mind; when you set out your thought processes, they exactly mirrored my own. I am a native English speaker (AmE). I think you have a great handle on this. @bib, I understand what you've pointed out; Janus Bahs Jacquet is simply being more specific. – anongoodnurse Jun 4 '14 at 22:39
  • @medica I agree. JBJ's structure is perfectly fine. There are just many subtle variations possible. – bib Jun 4 '14 at 22:56

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