Articles (The, A, An)

In English we sometimes use the words ‘the‘, ‘a‘ and ‘an‘ before a noun. These are known as articles. ‘a’ and ‘an’ are known as indefinite articles. ‘the’ is known as a definite articleThese words are some of the most popular in the english language so it’s important we know why and how to use them properly.

Definite article

We use the definite articlethe‘ when the listener knows the identity of the noun and we want to specify that noun.

“We’re going to the house”

In this situation the speaker is saying that they are going to a house (that they have already spoken about previously) and the listener knows which house it is. We also use the definite article for things that are common-knowledge or obvious even if the listener might not know of them. For example we use the definite article for ‘the Moon’, ‘the United States of America.’ and ‘the Big bang’.

Indefinite article

We use the indefinite articlea‘ or ‘an‘ when the noun isn’t known to the listener yet.

“We’re going to a house”

In this situation the speaker is saying that they are going to a house but, the speaker doesn’t yet know where it is. We use ‘a‘ when the noun starts with a consonant sound:-

  • a tree
  • a frog
  • a mouse

We use ‘an‘ when the noun starts with a vowel sound:-

  • an egg
  • an hour
  • an item

Example scenario

Sometimes an article for a noun can switch in one paragraph as the listener becomes aware of it.

“Where are we going?”

“We’re going to a house”

“Are we nearly there?”

“When we get to the house I will tell you”

When the house is first mentioned the listener wasn’t aware of it however, after it has been established we can then switch to using the definite article ‘the‘ after that whenever we want to refer back to this house.

Rules

As mentioned, whenever we have a noun in English we must make a choice of which article to use:- ‘a‘, ‘an‘, ‘the‘ or nothing at all. We already know when to use either the definite or indefinite article so the only real decision we need to make is if we will use an article or nothing at all. Selecting the right one isn’t always an easy choice for a non-native English speaker but there are some rules we can follow:-

The

  • Names of some countries (that use non-name words in the title:- ‘of’, ‘united’, ‘islands’.e.g.  the UK, The USA, The Cayman Islands)
  • Some places (the zoo, the park, the cinema)
  • Dates (the 21st of November)
  • Uncountable nouns when talking specifically (water, money, rice)(e.g The water here tastes bad)

A / An / The

Singular countable nouns (the/an apple, the/a car, the/a cat)

Nothing

  • Names of living creatures (Jim, Fred, whiskers etc)
  • Names of most countries (Japan, Germany, India etc)
  • Plural countable nouns (7 apples, 2 cars, 4 cats)
  • Uncountable nouns when talking in general (water, money, rice)(e.g. Drinking water is healthy)
  • With certain expressions (go to work, eat breakfast, stay in bed)
  • Days of the week / Months (Monday, February, December)

Practise exercise

Fill in the gap for each sentence:-

Have you ever seen ... Big Ben?
I will go to the shop on ... Saturday.
I come from ... United States of America.
Could you pass me ... water that's on the table?
I will have to go to ... work later.
I forgot to tell you! I found ... new job.
Tonight I will eat ... rice.
I want a big house. ... house needs to have at least 4 bedrooms.
I'm writing a new story, it's about ... sporty boy.
I'm going to visit London next week. I can't wait to see ... Houses of Parliament.