When I posted the poem, The Chaos, recently, I was reminded that the title felt odd when I first came across it. What was wrong with it? Well, chaos is an ‘uncountable’ noun and therefore doesn’t usually need an article. I would generally expect to see ‘Chaos’ without the article ‘the’. So what are the rules about the use of articles in English?
When to use ‘The’
We use ‘the’ with singular nouns and plural nouns when the noun is specific e.g.
Specific singular nouns: The dog caught the ball.
Specific plural nouns: The balls in the boxes were red and blue. Here we are talking about specific balls and boxes and not balls and boxes in general.
When to use ‘A or An’
Use ‘A or An’ when the singular noun is not specific, e.g. I want to buy a book.
Don’t use ‘A or An’ with plural nouns and when the noun is specific, e.g. I want to buy the book you recommended.
When are articles not used?
We do not use articles for plural nouns when the noun is not specific, e.g. Dogs come in all shapes and sizes.
We rarely use articles with uncountable nouns – see next section.
Generally we do not use articles for proper nouns, i.e. specific names for places and people. Proper nouns always have a capital letter in English.
Common nouns: castle, girl, book
Proper nouns: Edinburgh Castle, Jennifer, Pride and Prejudice
Countable and uncountable nouns
So we have finally arrived at countable and uncountable nouns.
Countable nouns name things that we can count using numbers, they have a singular and a plural form, e.g. book/books, dog/dogs, map/maps. We can use numbers, ‘the’ and ‘a or an’ with them e.g.
I have a book. She has three dogs.
Uncountable nouns are not counted with numbers, they are abstract or they are in a form where they cannot be counted. These nouns generally have no plural form, e.g. coffee, water, sand, knowledge, beauty, pollution.
We cannot use ‘a or an’ with these nouns. To express a quantity of an uncountable noun, we use a word or expression such as; some, a lot of, much, a bit of, a great deal of. Or, we use an exact measurement like, a cup of, a bag of, one litre of, a handful of, a pinch of, an hour of, a day of. If you want to ask about the quantity of an uncountable noun, you ask ‘How much?’ rather than ‘How many.’
We can, however, use ‘the’ with some of these words in cases where we are referring to a specific instance, e.g. ‘The coffee is cold.’ and ‘We swam in the water.’
Sometimes we may use a counting word with such nouns, but it is usually an abbreviated form, such as ‘Three coffees, please’ in this case, we are actually referring to three cups of coffee.
There are some potentially confusing nouns such as fish and sheep, the same word is used for both the singular and plural nouns. They are still countable nouns, however, as we can say ‘three sheep’. Hair is another such word: we say ‘I washed my hair’ and ’I found a grey hair today’.
There are also words that are generally uncountable in English that are countable in other languages, some examples are: accommodation, advice, baggage/luggage, behaviour, bread, furniture, information, news, progress, traffic, weather, work.
Back to The Chaos; chaos is an uncountable noun; however, ‘the’ can be used in specific instances, such as ‘The chaos caused us to miss our flight’ in which case we are probably referring to traffic chaos. In the poem, perhaps the writer was referring obliquely to ‘the chaos of English spelling’. Who knows, perhaps it was just ‘poetic licence’. His English is so good, that I doubt that it was a mistake!