Articles and collocational effects

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.


Master, P. (2007). Article errors and article choices. The CATESOL Journal, 19(1), 107-131. Retrieved from (pdf) []


Shin, Y. K., & Kim, Y. (2017). Using lexical bundles to teach articles to L2 English learners of different proficiencies. System, 69, 79-91.

Classified and Identified – A pedagogical grammar for article use

1990 was a good year for music  – Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Primal Scream, James, House of Love. 1990 was also good for what is, in my humble opinion, one of the best pedagogical grammars for article instruction – Peter Master’s paper Teaching the English Articles as a Binary System published in TESOL Quarterly.

It is a pedagogical grammar because it simplifies the four main characteristics of articles definiteness[+/-definite], specificity[+/-specific], countability[+/-count] and number[+/-singular] into two bigger concepts namely classification and identification. So 0 or no article and a/an is used to classify and the used to identify.

As discussed in a previous post the two main features of articles are definiteness and specificity. So the four possible combinations are:
1a. [-definite][+specific] A tick entered my ear.
b. [-definite][-specific] A tick carries disease.
c. [+definite][+specific] The computer is down today.
d. [+definite][-specific] The computer is changing our lives

Master’s binary scheme emphasizes 1b and 1c at the expense of 1a and 1d. That is +identification feature describes [+definite][+specific] and -identification or classification describes [-definite] [-specific].

The effect of ignoring specificity in indefinite uses is saying all uses of no article or a/an is essentially generic. Whether we mean a specific, actual tick as in 1a or a generic one as in 1b we still classify that tick when using the article a. Paraphrased as something that can be classified as a tick entered my ear/carries disease.

The effect of ignoring specificity in definite uses is saying that all uses of the are essentially specific. Although the difference between 1c and 1d is significant we can rely on the fact that generic the is relatively infrequent. Further some argue that generic the is not very different from specific the. The identified quality of a generic noun like the computer is held onto. We do not classify one-of-a-group for computer until we interpret the rest of the sentence. And when we understand the noun as requiring a generic interpretation we seem to see such interpretation through the individual. So generic the is considered as “the identification of a class

Master goes on to give some advice of teaching classification. For instance,  have students sort a pile of objects into categories – These are books/These are pencils/This is paper/This is a pen.

For identification have students identify members in the categories – This is the blue book/These are the red pencils/This is the A4 paper/This is the new pen.

In addition teach them that proper nouns, possessive determiners (my, her), possessive ’s (the girl’s), demonstratives (this, that) and some other determiners (e.g. either/neither,each, every) —> identify; while no article , a/an, and determiners such as some/any one —> classify.
Countability only needs to be considered for classified nouns as identified nouns require the whether they be countable or not.

Master then provides the following chart:

After the concepts of classification and identification are presented and practiced details of use can be shown as in the table below:

From Master, 2002

I won’t repeat what Master says as I have already done too much of that. Once you read Master’s paper the two figures can be used as a memory aid.

Master says that discourse effects of article use (e.g. given/theme and new/rheme) can be matched onto his binary schema i.e. given info is identification and new info is classification. And that for many noun phrase uses of article such as ranking adjectives, world shared knowledge, descriptive vs partitive of phrases, intentional vagueness, proper nouns and idiomatic phrases there is no need to go beyond the sentence unless first/subsequent mention is a involved.

Thanks for reading.


Master, P. (1990). Teaching the English articles as a binary system. Tesol Quarterly, 24(3), 461-478.
Master, P. (2002). Information structure and English article pedagogy. System, 30(3), 331-348.