Yesterday, my class was reviewing a/an, the and (-), otherwise known as the indefinite, definite and zero articles. Native speakers get this right at least 99.99% of the time, and second language learners get it wrong a lot.

One of the exercises was:
(1) ____ man with (2) ____ dog walks into (3) ____ bar. (4) ____ man says to (5) ____ barman, ‘Can I have (6) ____ beer and (7) ____ whisky for my dog …’

(1)-(3) are a. (4) is the. All the students chose the for (5), but I think too much, and couldn’t stop myself pondering why it’s not (or can’t be) a – there are probably multiple barmen at the bar, and the man spoke to one of them.

(6) and (7) have too many options. Beer and whisky are both initially uncountable, but become informally countable when in bottles or glasses (or bowls, if it’s for a dog). So the man could ask for:
‘beer and whisky’,
‘a beer and a whisky’,
‘a beer and whisky’
‘beer and a whisky’
and I can’t see anything which would convincingly make one ‘right’ and the others ‘wrong’. The teachers book says ‘a beer and a whisky’, and if I had to choose one, that would be it. The student I asked said ‘a beer and whisky, which I had to say was correct.

The textbook does not include the end of the joke. In fact, there may not be an end; the authors might just have written an archetypal beginning to this kind of joke. A search online led only to this textbook.

In fact there are even more options: the beer and whisky could be in separate receptacles or mixed, or the beer could be for the man and the whisky for his dog (which would probably need a pause in speaking or comma in writing after ‘beer’). I mentally counted 12 possibilities and briefly thought about discussing them all before deciding ‘nah’. I’ve made my point, which is that there is no ‘right’ answer.

And a further point. We could possibly do without articles entirely. Many languages do. I titled this post MAN WITH DOG WALKS INTO BAR, which is perfectly understandable, and perfect ‘headlinese’.


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