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Common Mistakes #1 ~ “THE” is “the” problem October 22, 2008

Posted by Fantastic Four in Common Mistakes, Language, Language Study.
Tags: , , , , ,

The equivalent of the article the does not exist in many languages. Turkish being one, your average Turkish person is faced with the big problem of either over-using or completely neglecting the when speaking or writing in English. The “the” problem is nothing compared to the hassle of dealing with a variety of articles in German, but that’s my problem and I will deal with it in due time, perhaps in another post.

Proofreading becomes a painful affair, when one has to correct the same mistake in different sentences, over and over again. It’s feels exactly like it did when I was getting a tattoo on my back. I asked the tattoo artist, is it going to hurt much? He shrugged, no, not really. Then he flashed a trust-me-I-know-what-I-am-doing kind of smile and asked, have you ever been scratched by a cat? Now it was my turn to shrug, of course. Ok then, he dragged me to the chair where I had to sit backwards and hug the back of the chair, nothing to worry about. I quickly found out, however, that while he was right about the cat scratch analogy, he forgot to add that it would feel as if the cat is scratching the same spot over and over again for hours. Deleting and/or inserting thousands of the‘s and a‘s as I proofread, I go back in time and find myself sitting on that chair, hugging the back of it real tight. I want to just close my eyes and scream, scream until it is all over.

I remember, the night of completing a relatively large proofreading project, I had a nightmare. It was raining a’s and the’s and my umbrella was made of paper. A’s were snowflakes, not in the traditional star-like snow flake shape but a variety of capital and small a’s, in script or print form. They were pretty and they didn’t hurt me as they landed softly on the ground, like feathers. The‘s on the other hand were very scary, made of thick cut glass in gigantic bold type fonts. I was dodging them successfully but as they crashed onto the pavement to my left and right, I was not able to escape the little sharp shards breaking off the tails of e’s or the tops of the T’s. Blood trickling down my arms and legs, I woke up with a scream. Following the nightmare I took a break from proofreading for a while.

I personally find that, especially when I am tired, the first thing that goes is the correct use of the. Most of the time I say something and notice the mistake as soon as the words leave my mouth, even before they reach the ears of my intended audience, but a moment too late.

To put flesh on the bones of the the problem, here are a few very simple examples of common mistakes I have been talking about:


Obama went to the school in Hawai from 1971 to 79.

Shouldn’t we be doing something about green house effect.

I made the mistake. (meaning, I made a mistake)

I made mistake. (meaning, I made a mistake)

She is most sexy woman in the world. (the phrase ‘in the world’ is almost always correct. Yippie!)

Turkish Social Democrat Party has won 30 seats in Parliament. (trick question: two mistakes here – can you spot them both?)


I don’t mind at all if it is a tourist with a little dictionary in one hand and a phrasebook (perhaps a hand-held electronic translator gadget) in the other making such mistakes. I find it rather cute and charming when I see someone who is trying to communicate with another in that another’s language in that another’s country.

Learning a new language is tough, regardless of which language it is. Unless of course you are fortunate enough to be the toddler of a very international family.

I find the best way to learn a language, is to live and breathe it; immerse oneself in it for as long as possible, i.e. visit and stay in the country of that very language.

If residential learning is not an option, then make sure to listen to a lot of songs while reading the lyrics – Russian pop songs are just as bad as Turkish pop songs. Watch movies with subtitles; make new friends (perhaps on-line even) who are fluent in the target language. Read books simultaneously in both languages. I have books in English and Russian: War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, even a copy of Harry Potter: The Philosopher’s Stone.

Theory of language can easily be put into practice by simply using some of the methods I wrote above; we are only limited by our own imagination.

For over 20 years now, the has not been a big problem of mine. My problem is with my vocabulary. It is an enormous issue, as I usually hide behind the words I am familiar with or have used for a longΒ  time, instead of letting myself rush off and adventure into the new ones I read in books or come across in other media. Some say I shouldn’t really worry about it.

I hope I won’t have another nightmare involving the assault of THE‘s, or worse, BIG WORDS tonight.

The End…



1. Books and Magazines Blog » Archive » Common Mistakes #1 ~ “THE” is “the” problem - October 22, 2008

[…] Original post by Gaudium De Lingua […]

2. Brian Barker - October 22, 2008

I notice that Barack Obama wants everyone to learn another language, but which one should it be? The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Why not decide on a common language, taught worldwide, in all nations?

I think it is relevant that UNESCO will meet in Paris, on 15th December, to acknowlege Esperanto, as a living language, in conjunction with the International Year of Languages

An interesting video can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670. A glimpse of the language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

3. Baino - October 23, 2008

Haha . . I actually find the way you insert or leave out ‘the’ very charming. I think you really need a little rest from proofreading when it gets to the stage that you’re being attacked by kille ‘THE’s’! Actually I think ‘the’ must be missing from a few languages, I have a Hungarian friend who rarely uses it when speaking English and kudos to you for proofreading your own work. I just can’t spot mistakes after a bunch of rewriting and editing and need some ‘fresh’ eyes to review for me.

4. Gaye - October 23, 2008

I usually try not to proofread my own work, it’s other’s work that gives me nightmares. I let another proofreader have nightmares over my translation!
It’s not possible to see mistakes, as you say, after looking at it for so many hours.
A while ago I learned a fool-proof proofreading technique. You write (translate) and then let it sit there for 24 hours. After 24 hours, print out the document, in a different font and font size (bigger font) than that of the document. Sit down and read it with a pen in hand.
Proofreading in this manner you catch so many mistakes and come up with fresh ideas for rephrasing and improving your work so much better and with ease. Proofreading over the computer screen may be easier because you can type-change as you go, but it doesn’t work as well as that technique I just talked about.
I just proofread 50 words and the translator wrote “… for outside of the region” instead of the correct translation “… for anywhere else inside the region”, aargh!

5. Nick - October 23, 2008

When the definite article is and isn’t used in other languages is really tricky, as it so often varies from English. As in your examples above. Usually there’s no logic to it, it’s simply convention, and you just have to memorise each instance.

Your dream about the As and THEs is amazing. Where do these extraordinary dream-images come from? I shall never look at A and THE in the same way again!

I’m excellent at proofreading so unfortunately Jenny’s always getting me to check her journal articles etc. I proofread her entire PhD for my sins! (And don’t you think the past tense of read should be redd – it would avoid a lot of confusion!)

6. wisewebwoman - October 24, 2008

Isn’t English very tricky, Gaye? Your nightmare gave me the creeps too, I thought of some of the Scrabble nightmares I’ve had from playing too much of it. None of the falling tiles cut me though, poor you. Big signal to get away from your work for a while. :^)

I found Gaeilge (Irish) very difficult, even as a small child with its many extra tenses.

Italian I found the easiest of all, knowing some Latin and French.
Also it is so musical.

7. Gaye - October 24, 2008

Nick, there are a few rules concerning “the” that I have learned along the way, it being the definite article. I somehow picked up all the rules and exceptions along the way, so now, soon as I omit it by mistake I am aware of it. It sounds wrong to my own ears. And it happens usually when I am exhausted.
Since there is no way of memorising each instance because there are infinite number of combinations when building a phrase, people make a lot of mistakes with the articles.

Dreams, my dreams are freaky I should really pull my finger out and start compiling them because it could easily fit into a mad book of dreams. I had a period of non-dreaming or not remembering my dreams, which coincides with my insomnia at the time. It was disconcerting waking up tired everyday and not remembering having any dreams or nightmares.

OH, now that I know you are excellent at proofreading, I will be sending my translations your way! TA! πŸ™‚ I think pronounciations is also a huge problem with English consisting of so many non-phonetic words. I could teach you the Turkish alphabet in an hour, and you could then go ahead and read every single Turkish word you see. Of course you wouldn’t have a clue as to what they mean but you could read them nevertheless.

Thank you for the comment! πŸ™‚

8. Gaye - October 24, 2008

English IS very tricky WWW dearest. But at least the alphabet is easy to learn hehe. With Russian I found the alphabet was a difficult one. And then the verb conjugation. No problem with regular verbs but the irregular ones, oh dear. If I were to learn Arabic or Chinese I would need a lot of patience. Although Korean is on my list, simpler characters and each symbol is indeed a letter not a word or syllable as the other two.

Gaelige is too hard to read, for me. I don’t mind the difficult grammar because Turkish is one of the most difficult ones and I can get my mind around all sorts of grammar structures for other languages.

Italian sounds so passionate and romantic. Where did you learn Latin, at school? One of the reasons why I want to learn Latin is to pick up French and Italian quicker later on. Ta for the feedback on that one. It reinforced my plan. πŸ™‚


9. Excellent Adventures - October 28, 2008

Wow, you have some disturbing dreams! I’m glad I’m not being attacked by small words in the night! I’m the same as you, I tend to cling very tightly to the words i know and twist them until I can express different things with them, rather than trying to learn new words that would be more appropriate. I know what you mean about living in the country of that language is best but sometimes the people you’re with determine how much you pick up a language. I found the people in Peru/Ecuador/Bolivia were rally helpful and encouraging with my Spanish, so I learned quickly. But in Spain I find people get tired of trying to help me and will just start speaking English or give up and not talk to me altogether!!! It helps when the people teaching you are encouraging. And yes, Spanish radio is helping me so much! Just wish they’d slow down a bit!!! Good luck with your proof reading!

10. Gaye - October 29, 2008

Hi Miss Adventurer!
Definitely, the people around you determine whether or not you will be practicing your new language or sticking to the one everyone prefers to speak.
I used to listen to the Russian radio, I tell you sometimes it takes effort to stay listening because the Russian Pop Music is not my favourite. I try to stick to the classical music or news/talkshow stations.
Off I go to visit your blog now, since you were online blog-hopping and commenting, I am thinking you might have posted new stories on your travels!
Stay Safe!

11. conortje - October 30, 2008

Oh I have problems with the definitive article in every langauge I attempt to speak too. At least we have no gender issues in English to be contending with!

12. Gaye - October 30, 2008

Conor, that’s fair enough. πŸ™‚

13. Conan Drumm - October 31, 2008

Here’s a the for you – if we gave it an accent (they’re another bother) it’d be tea in French, a cup of the!

And what about apostrophes – they’re so abused in English that I imagine non-native speakers must get confused between possessives, elisions and false plurals.

14. Gaye - October 31, 2008

English is too easy to learn as a tourist. Nuances appear and it becomes utterly confusing only when you know enough of it to say you are fluent and then try to write an essay on recession, fashion, social democracy (on my agenda these days), vocational education, etc. Meaning specifics, more complex phrases and sentences.

Accents in French were killing me when I first took French 104 (withdrew from the unit due to conflicting schedules). French is still in my list of languages though.

My next post is going to be on MAKE/DO and GOOD/WELL confusion.

In the meantime, hope you enjoy your cup of the. πŸ™‚

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