§ In this lesson, we will explore three very small but important words in the English language: the articles a, an and the.
§ These are words that you use in almost every sentence that you speak or write.
§ Learn about the significance of articles, when to use them and some examples.
Definition of Articles
§ An article is a word used to modify a noun, which is a person, place, object or idea.
§ Technically, an article is an adjective, which is any word that modifies a noun.
§ Usually adjectives modify nouns through description, but articles are used instead to point out or refer to nouns.
§ There are two different types of articles that we use in writing and conversation to point out or refer to a noun or group of nouns: definite and indefinite articles.
I. The Definite Article
§ The word “the” is one of the most common words in English. It is our only definite article.
§ Nouns in English are preceded by the definite article when the speaker believes that the listener already knows what he is referring to.
§ The speaker may believe this for many different reasons, some of which are listed below.
A. When to use “the”
1. Use the to refer to something which has already been mentioned.
- I was walking past Benny’s Bakery when I decided to go into the bakery to get some bread.
- There’s a position available in my team. The job will involve some international travel.
2. Use the when you assume there is just one of something in that place, even if it has not been mentioned before.
- Where is the bathroom?
- Turn left and go to number 45. Our house is across from the Italian restaurant.
- My father enjoyed the book you gave him.
3. Use the in sentences or clauses where you define or identify a particular person or object.
- The man who wrote this book is famous.
- I scratched the red car parked outside.
- I live in the small house with a blue door.
- He is the doctor I came to see.
4. Use the to refer to people or objects that are unique.
- The sun rose at 6:17 this morning.
- You can go anywhere in the world.
- Clouds drifted across the sky.
- The president will be speaking on TV tonight.
5. Use the before superlatives and ordinal numbers.
- This is the highest building in New York.
- She read the last chapter of her new book first.
- You are the tallest person in our class.
- This is the third time I have called you today.
6. Use the with adjectives, to refer to a whole group of people.
- The French enjoy cheese.
- The elderly require special attention.
- She has given a lot of money to the poor.
7. Use the with decades.
- He was born in the seventies.
- This is a painting from the 1820’s.
8. Use the with clauses introduced by only
- This is the only day we’ve had sunshine all week.
- You are the only person he will listen to.
9. Use the with names of geographical areas, rivers, mountain ranges, groups of islands, canals, and oceans.
- They are travelling in the Arctic.
- Our ship crossed the Atlantic in 7 days.
- I will go on a cruise down the Nile.
- Hiking across the Rocky Mountains would be difficult.
10. Use the with countries that have plural names
- I have never been to the Netherlands.
- Do you know anyone who lives in the Philippines?
11. Use the with countries that include the words “republic”, “kingdom”, or “states” in their names.
- She is visiting the United States.
- James is from the Republic of Ireland.
12. Use the with newspaper names.
- I read it in the Guardian.
- She works for the New York Times.
13. Use the with the names of famous buildings, works of art, museums, or monuments.
- Have you been to the Vietnam Memorial?
- We went to the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa.
- I would like to visit the Eiffel Tower.
14. Use the with the names of hotels & restaurants, unless these are named after a person.
- They are staying at the Hilton on 6th street.
- We ate at the Golden Lion.
15. Use the with the names of families, but not with the names of individuals.
- We’re having dinner with the Smiths tonight.
- The Browns are going to the play with us.
B. When not to use “the”
1. Do not use the with names of countries (except for the special cases above).
- Germany is an important economic power.
- He’s just returned from Zimbabwe.
2. Do not use the with the names of languages.
- French is spoken in Tahiti.
- English uses many words of Latin origin.
- Indonesian is a relatively new language.
3. Do not use the with the names of meals.
- Lunch is my favorite meal.
- I like to eat breakfast early.
4. Do not use the with people’s names.
- John is coming over later.
- Mary Carpenter is my boss.
5. Do not use the with titles when combined with names.
- Prince Charles is Queen Elizabeth’s son.
- President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
6. Do not use the after the ‘s possessive case
- His brother’s car was stolen.
- Peter’s house is over there.
7. Do not use the with professions
- Engineering is a well-paid career.
- He’ll probably study medicine.
8. Do not use the with names of shops
- I’ll get the card at Smith’s.
- Can you go to Boots for me?
9. Do not use the with years
- 1948 was a wonderful year.
- He was born in 1995.
10. Do not use the with uncountable nouns
- Rice is an important food in Asia.
- Milk is often added to tea in England.
- War is destructive.
11. Do not use the with the names of individual mountains, lakes and islands
- Mount McKinley is the highest mountain in Alaska.
- She lives near Lake Windermere.
- Have you visited Long Island?
12. Do not use the with most names of towns, streets, stations and airports
- Victoria Station is in the centre of London.
- Can you direct me to Bond Street?
- She lives in Florence.
- They’re flying into Heathrow.
II. Indefinite Article
§ In English, the two indefinite articles are a and an. Like other articles, indefinite articles are invariable.
§ You use one or the other, depending on the first letter of the word following the article, for pronunciation reasons.
§ Use a when the next word starts with a consonant, or before words starting in u and eu when they sound like you.
§ Use an when the next word starts with a vowel (a,e,i,o,u) or with a mute h.
· a boy
· an apple
· a car
· a helicopter
· an elephant
· a big elephant
· an itchy sweater
· an ugly duck
· a european
· a university
· a unit
· an hour
· an honor
The indefinite article is used to refer to something for the first time or to refer to a particular member of a group or class. Some use cases and examples are given below.
1. Use a to refer to something for the first time.
· Would you like a drink?
· I’ve finally got a good job.
· An elephant and a mouse fell in love.
2. Use a with names of jobs.
· John is a doctor.
· Mary is training to be an engineer.
· He wants to be a dancer.
3. Use a with nationalities and religions in the singular.
· John is an Englishman.
· Kate is a Catholic.
4. Use a with the names of days of the week when not referring to any particular day.
· I was born on a Thursday.
· Could I come over on a Saturday sometime?
5. Use a to refer to an example of something.
· The mouse had a tiny nose .
· The elephant had a long trunk .
· It was a very strange car .
6. Use a with singular nouns after the words ‘what’ and ‘such’.
· What a shame !
· She’s such a beautiful girl .
· What a lovely day !
7. Use a meaning ‘one’, referring to a single object or person, or a single unit of measure. In these sentences using “one” instead of the indefinite article is grammatically correct. It will add emphasis to the number, and contrast with other numbers.
· I’d like an orange and two lemons please.
· I’d like one orange and two lemons please.
· The burglar took a diamond necklace and some valuable paintings.
· I can think of a hundred reasons not to come.
· I need a kilogram of sugar.
III. No Articles or Zero Article Rule
The zero article the is used in the following cases:
|With a singular countable noun when we address somebody:||What is the matter, Doctor? |
Don’t worry, Mother. I will be O.K.
|With plural countable nouns when they represent all the elements which belong to the group:||Elephants are big animals. |
Oranges have vitamins in.
|When a plural countable noun denotes the number of indefinite elements:||There are people in the street. |
Students often stay at colleges.
|When a plural countable noun is preceded by be or become:||The Browns are engineers. |
Mrs. Smith’s daughters became actresses.
|With abstract nouns such as: beauty, truth, etc.||Beauty is truth.|
|With names of materials such as: wood, glass, etc.||Chairs are made of wood. |
This vase is made of glass
|Some of the above-mentioned nouns can be used as countable nouns and then they are preceded by the indefinite article||a wood (i.e. “a small forest”) |
a glass (i.e. “a mirror” or “a drinking vessel”)
There is a wood not far from my cottage.
I got a glass as a birthday present.
|With such uncountable nouns as money, milk, etc.:||Lily needs money. |
One should drink milk.
|The above-mentioned nouns can be preceded by such expressions as: some, a lot of, etc.||Lily needs some money. |
One should drink a lot of milk.
|In exclamatory sentences when uncountable or plural countable nouns are used:||What dirt! |
What a waste!
What a pity!
|With few and little when we express small number or small amount||I have few friends. (i.e. ‘almost no friends’) |
I have little sugar. (i.e. ‘almost no sugar’)
|When a singular countable noun is used after be and become and denotes a unique job/profession||John Kennedy was President. |
Karol Wojtyla became Pope.
|When a noun is used after turn||He turned musician and made a great career. |
He turned spy and was imprisoned.
|When a noun refers to an institution which is only one of its kind||When will parliament begin its session? |
When does school end?
|With two or more nouns when they refer to a couple of people or a couple of inanimate things||Father and mother went to the cinema.|
She was studying day and night before her final exams.
|When a noun is used in notes, signs, headlines, telegraphs etc.||Private road.|
Design flaw feared.
|With some nouns which are only one of their kind||Heaven|
|With the names of seasons, months, days of the week||summer|
|With nouns preceded by a pronoun or an adjective||my shirt|
my white shirt
|With names of meals, except when they are preceded by an adjective:||We have breakfast at eight. |
He gave us a good breakfast.
|The indefinite article is used when we talk about a special meal prepared to celebrate something or welcome somebody:||I was invited to dinner. (in the ordinary way) |
I was invited to a dinner given to welcome the new ambassador.
|With the following nouns when the places named are used for their primary purpose||bed |
We learn at school.
When he became seriously ill, he was taken to hospital.
My bus stops opposite the school.
Yesterday, I was allowed to go to the hospital to see my cousin.
|With a noun sea when we talk about sailors or passengers||We go to sea as sailors. |
to be at sea = to be on a voyage as passengers or crew
|But when we talk about sea as a seaside then we use the||He was at the sea (at the seaside) |
When he was young he lived by/near the sea.
|When the speaker refers to his/her own town||We go to town sometimes to buy clothes.|
We were in town last Monday.
|With surnames||Professor Smith |
|With holidays||Christmas |
|With the names of some magazines/newspapers||Time |
|With the names of some organizations||British Rail |
|With the names of some buildings, bridges and streets||Wetback Mansion |
|With man when we denote ‘mankind’||Man constantly changes his natural environment.|
|countries, counties, states||Poland |
|towns, cities and villages||New York |
|single islands unless their name include a preposition||Malta |
The Isle of Wight
The Isle of Man
|lakes||Lake Baikal |
|single mountains unless their name include a preposition||Mount Everest |
The Mountain of the Seven Sights
|streets||Oxford Street |
|expressions such as:||day by day|
from dawn to dusk
hand in hand
from beginning to end
face to face
from west to east
|With abstract nouns which are used with general meaning||Some people like risk.|
|With the noun home when we refer to the speaker’s or listener’s house||It’s late I have to go home. |
If you don’t feel well, you should stay at home.
|With last and next when we refer to the nearest days, weeks, months, etc.||I met him last week.|
(i.e. “the week before the present one”)
I hope to see you next week.
(i.e. “the week after the present one”)
|With gerund when an activity / state expressed by the gerund is not definite||Mrs. Thompson likes cooking.|