Judy Nollet
White Plume Communications

writer, instructional designer, eLearning developer

The Article Article

How many characters can you use per article? Only 1, 2, or 3. At least, that's the answer when the article in question is a part of speech: a, an, or the. These short words are mini-adjectives, used to designate whether you're referring to something definite (the banana, the grapes) or indefinite (a banana, an apple).

People often drop articles to shorten text: Preheat oven. Remove wrapper. Bake pizza for 30 minutes. In many cases, deleting articles does not affect the meaning, so this can be a good strategy for making the information fit its online or in-print constraints.

However, skip too many articles, and your writing will start to feel choppy. Worse, your message may be misread. This is especially true when it involves a word that can be a verb, a noun, or an adjective. In such cases, the reader may need to parse the phrase or sentence multiple times to determine the meaning. Consider the following:

  • Control pressure
  • Design document
  • Search results
  • Test Switch

In the examples above, is the first word an adjective describing the second word? Or is it a verb indicating an action you should take? Used in a sentence, the surrounding text may provide the answer, although it still might take a re-reading to be clear. Yet a simple article prevents any confusion. For example:

  • The control pressure (control is an adjective)
  • Control the pressure (control is a verb)

So when should you include articles and when can you drop them? There's no absolute rule. Generally, it's better to keep the articles when you're writing paragraphs, because they contribute to a smooth flow. It's more acceptable to skip them in bullet points or numbered steps, where brevity is key. But you should carefully read the text—or, better still, have someone else read it—to determine if it's clear without the articles. After all, saving a few characters isn't worth much if it means losing your readers.

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Copyright Judy Nollet, White Plume Communications. 
		All rights reserved. Email white plume at comcast dot net. link to email Judy

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