If you read Mura Nava’s blog, the title above probably rings a bell. In his latest post, Mura discusses what Master (2007) says about article choices. He offers two example sentences with the phrase lack of, one of which seems incorrect at first glance but is actually a viable choice which should be accepted (or at least we should give the student a benefit of doubt in marking feedback).
The phrase *lack of* looks very basic at first sight. However, as a non-native speaker of English, I know that it can be quite tricky. The trouble is that it can be used with a, the or zero article. Here are three example sentences from online Cambridge Dictionary:
- There is a lack of reasonably priced housing for rent.
- One disadvantage of living in the town is the lack of safe places for the children to play.
- Hospitals are being forced to close departments because of _ lack of money.
When writing, I always catch myself considering the a vs the article options. Have I always chosen the right one? Who knows? Wait! I have a blog. And a blog can easily turn into a mini-corpus…
It was a piece of cake to search my blog for the phrase *lack of*. I came back with 41 instances – just for starters! I saved the example sentences with a bit of co-text in a Word document. I highlighted the articles for easier reference. I’m pleased to see that now it looks a bit like the COCA corpus. 🙂
Here are some of my observations:
Most of the sentences look all right to me. However, now that I think about it, some of the examples of *the lack of* could probably be replaced with *a lack of*. A closer scrutiny reveals why they probably weren’t; they were post- or pre-modified in some way (speaking in very layman’s terms). In the following sentence, for example, I mention the lack of understanding.
Some happened due to a minor language deficit on my part while others, I believe, happened due to the LACK of understanding on the reader’s part.
At first sight, I think it would be more natural to say due to a lack of understanding on the reader’s part, but the preceding sentence goes:
Like I said, I have experienced a couple of misunderstandings here on my blog (even with some prominent ELT people).
Can a couple of misunderstandings be considered a type of pre-modification for the lack of understanding?
The following use of the definite article looks inappropriate to me:
Have you ever contemplated the reasons behind the cliché that teaching teenage classes is the most challenging job? And if so, do you think it could be the LACK of maturity connected with a certain degree of unpredictability and unstableness that is so daunting for us teachers?
I have no idea why I went for the in this example. Did I have in mind some implicit type of modification? I’m not sure. One way of the other, now I’d definitely opt for an indefinite article in this case.
Surprisingly, there’s not a single instance of _lack of on my blog. I don’t think I even knew that lack of can be used with a zero article and if I had, I doubt I’d have had the courage to go for this option anyway. It simply doesn’t seem safe to me.
I noticed I’d used this a couple of times as well as a possessive pronoun (my/their).
I, the writer, have virtually no control over any of the variables. This LACK of control is daunting as well as thrilling.
Anyway, I think I’ll definitely show a little more compassion for their initial LACK of enthusiasm this year.
I feel I need to make up for my LACK of gratitude and appreciation.
To clarify my train of thought, both this and my/their probably served as a way of emphasizing and/or as an anaphoric/cataphoric reference. They could probably be replaced with the definite article (with some minor adjustments to the sentence) but they seem all right to me like this.
To conclude, I may have a tendency to overuse the definite article with lack of but I mostly do so to indicate some kind of implicit information (known to me as well as the reader) and/or to emphasize. If it’s 100% correct, that I don’t know.