While I was doing some marking I came across what Master (2007) in discussing article choice has called “overgeneralisations from similar patterns” or effects of collocational phrases.
The following patterns were found in the same essay (on cyber warfare):
1. Those types of attacks are occurring everyday, and are often due to the lack of awareness of the victims.
2. The USA has declared unofficially that they have been under several cyber attacks from China, but with the lack of evidence, they can’t press charges against them.
In 1 article use seems to be okay but in 2 at first glance there seems to be an error i.e. the student should have chosen “a lack of evidence”.
However Master (2007) argues that:
article selection may have been the product of overgeneralization from an already learned collocational phrase rather than from the misapplication of a rule.
In our example we can see that in 1 the student has correctly used “due to the lack of awareness of the victims” whilst in 2 we could argue that the student is implying the thought “with the lack of evidence (that they have)”.
In marking feedback you might consider that since in sentence 1 the student has postmodified “the lack of awareness” with “of the victims” then we could give the student the benefit of the doubt in sentence 2 by saying they are implying a postmodification of “that they have” in the use of definite article in “the lack of evidence”.
Master (2007) found based on 20 low-advanced proficient students doing timed essays that:
more than a quarter of the article “errors” were actually viable choices that should have been honored.
He classed his data into noun phrase structure, modification structure and discourse structure. The noun phrase structures included count/noncount, generic/specific and idioms. The modification structures included pre-modifying ranking adjectives, postmodified/nonmodified, unlimited/limited quantity, partitive/descriptive Of-phrases, intentional vagueness. The discourse structure was first and subsequent mention.
As an example of a count/non-count distinction:
An example of a pedagogical intervention is:
Master (2007) uses two reasons to justify this approach of looking at how students choose articles. One is that based on Yoon & Bailey (1988), as cited by Masters (2007), “teachers as editors often correct article usage in ways unintended by the original author”. And two based on Sheen (2007), as cited by Masters (2007), metacognitive feedback in addition to corrective feedback can impact student article use more than just corrective feedback.
Furthermore teaching article use in context such as lexical bundles, which are another form of collocation, has shown to be effective (Shin & Kim 2017). It must be noted that the chances of finding what could be called a paired example (as in my student’s two sentences above) may be rare and so giving students more leeway could be harder to justify.
Thanks for reading and if you want to explore more on article use have a read of some previous scribbles on this: Classified and Identified – A pedagogical grammar for article use and A, an, the, definiteness and specificity.