A brief note on how to use “a/an” and “the”: General and specific references in English

This area causes various problems for Polish people writing in English. The main problem is the correct use of articles (“a” and “the”), but another problem arises from the fact that in Polish you can use the singular to make general references, while in English we usually use the plural.

Have a look at the below example:

Poniżej przedstawiamy nasze uwagi dotyczące zgromadzenia wspólników spółki z o.o. w świetle polskiego prawa.

Which ordinary shareholders’ meeting and which limited liability company does this sentence refer to? Does it refer to these things in general, or is it referring to a specific ordinary shareholders’ meeting and a specific limited liability company?

Of course the answer is that it is referring to these things in general. We know because of the phrase w świetle polskiego prawa. So how would you translate this sentence into English?

WRONG
Please find below our comments regarding ordinary shareholders’ meeting in limited liability company under Polish law.

This translation is incorrect. Although walnego zgromadzenia akcjonariuszy and spółce z o.o. are in the singular in Polish, they must be in the plural in English. This is because when we make such general references we refer to all instances of a thing – thus we use the plural.

So the correct translation is as follows:

RIGHT
Please find below our comments regarding ordinary shareholders’ meetings in limited liability companies under Polish law.

Now have a look at this sentence:

Zgromadzenie wspólników spółki z o.o. powinno zostać zwołane nie później niż w ciągu 6 miesięcy od zakończenia roku finansowego.

This sentence could be translated in the same way as the first example (using the plural):

Ordinary shareholders’ meetings in limited liability companies should be convened no later than six months after the end of each financial year.

Or it can be translated like this (using the singular):

An ordinary shareholders’ meeting in a limited liability company should be convened no later than six months after the end of each financial year.

This is another way of making general references. Remember that “a/an” is the indefinite article. It is used to indicate an individual instance of a thing that is undefined (i.e. not specific).

So, when making general references, you can use no article and the plural or “a/an” and the singular. It is incorrect to use the singular with no article:

WRONG
Ordinary shareholders’ meeting in limited liability company should be convened no later than six months after the end of each financial year.

We can now look at specific references:

W naszym przypadku rok finansowy Spółki kończy się 31 grudnia każdego roku. Oznacza to, że zgromadzenie wspólników za rok 2011 musi odbyć się najpóźniej w ostatni dzień czerwca 2012 r.

In this section the issue that was discussed in general terms in the previous two examples is now applied to the client’s specific matter. Therefore we are no longer making general references, but specific ones.

So which company are we talking about? The client’s (which is also a defined term as it starts with a capital letter).

Which ordinary shareholders’ meeting are we talking about? The Company’s ordinary shareholders’ meeting for 2011.

As we know which instances of each thing we are talking about, we must use the definite article (“the”), which, as its name suggests, defines (i.e. specifies) the thing it precedes.

Here’s a translation of the above example:

In the present case, the Company’s financial year ends on 31 December of each year. This means that the ordinary shareholders’ meeting for the year 2011 must take place on or before the last day of June 2012.

Note that I have used “the” in several other places in these sentences. In each case “the” indicates the specific nature of the thing it precedes.

Summary: As a very general rule, try to remember this: When we give a client general information about the law (e.g. in sentences that start “Under Polish law…”) we make general references, so we use plurals with no article or the singular with “a/an”. But when we apply this information to a client’s particular matter we make specific references, so we use “the”.

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