I'm not a native speaker and I have this question for some time now. What articles and when should be placed with physical and mathematical concepts? General Rules?

  • a/the force
  • a/the manifold
  • a/the flux of a/the/() field
  • ...

I think it would be better to ask here rahther than on english.stackexchange.com because I believe here people know all the variants and cases of using the terminology.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting use of the meta site :-) This isn't really about the main site, so I'm not sure whether it belongs here, but I would feel bad closing it. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Dec 28, 2012 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ This question(v1) belongs on English.SE. $\endgroup$
    – Qmechanic Mod
    Dec 28, 2012 at 21:00

1 Answer 1


Well, this could go on english.SE imo, but the big users there are pretty ardently against questions from non-native speakers these days. They don't want to clutter their site with lowbrow questions from people not tenured in the humanities. (Okay end of rant, I promise.)

The thing is, articles in English are very context dependent, and there are very few terms that are consistently preceded by one form or another. The definite article the comes before any nouns somehow uniquely defined by the situation:

The force in this particular case...

while the indefinite article a/an precedes nouns that are particular instances where more variety can be imagined:

There is probably an electromagnetic field of some sort worth considering...

Used properly, articles can very well distinguish between unspecified instances of abstract notions and specific, well-defined examples of those notions:

While a manifold is just a topological space locally homeomorphic to R^n, the manifold we will consider is the unique one-dimensional, compact, connected manifold without boundary (i.e. the circle).

There really aren't any better general rules, even for specific things in physics. (Sorry - I've heard English is one of the hardest languages to learn and master, and even as a native speaker I believe it.) That said, on the internet even native speakers (myself included) slip up in more egregious ways than using the wrong article, so I wouldn't worry too much about it.

  • $\begingroup$ I am a big user on ELU, I am not a native speaker, and I have actually answered a very similar question there myself. Your rant amounts to saying that the big users on Physics are pretty ardently against questions from bus drivers these days. $\endgroup$
    – RegDwight
    Dec 28, 2012 at 16:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/540/01 $\endgroup$
    – MetaEd
    Dec 28, 2012 at 16:44
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ English.SE is an experts site like Physics.SE, and has similar guidelines for question quality. But where Physics typically gets questions like "Can the vibrational energy of a engine be used to increase efficiency?", English gets a much larger share of questions which are analogous to "My car shake why?". $\endgroup$
    – MetaEd
    Dec 28, 2012 at 17:03

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