Every time you use a noun, you have to decide if you also use an article (a, an, or the), and if so, which one to use. For many learners, using articles correctly is one of the most frustrating aspects of English. You have to take into account a number of factors, including context and shared knowledge with the person you are addressing, the meaning of the noun, idioms and fixed phrases, and whether the noun is singular, plural, or uncountable.
Although mistakes in the use of articles don’t often lead to misunderstanding, it can be disorienting for the listener. “A,” “an,” and “the” act a bit like adjectives; they give us more information about the noun. “The” tells us that the noun you are talking about is specific, particular, known or soon-to-be known to the listener. “A/an” introduces something new. If someone hears the sentence, “I just bought the car,” she would think that she must know what car the speaker is talking about, and try to remember. If she hears the sentence “I just bought a car,” she would know that she is supposed to be hearing about this car for the first time.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at the general rules for using articles.
A/An: Introducing Something New
A/An is called the indefinite article because it refers to nouns that are not specific. The noun in question can be any member of a group. We also use “a/an” when we introduce a countable noun for the first time, because the listener doesn’t know which one we are referring to yet. A and an are only used for singular, countable nouns, because they also mean “one.”
- I just found out about a great new restaurant. (We use “a” because this is new information; we haven’t told the listener which restaurant yet.)
- My brother is going to buy a cello. (We use “a” because this is new information, and because he hasn’t decided on a specific cello yet.)
A or An?
We use either “a” or “an” based on which is easiest to say. If a noun (or noun phrase, since the article goes before all adjectives before a noun) starts with a vowel sound, native speakers find it awkward to say “a” first (“a apple”…not comfortable to say!), and we use “an.” If the noun begins with a consonant sound, we use “a.” Remember that this doesn’t have to do with spelling, but with sound. Many nouns begin with “u” but sound like they start with a /y/ sound (like “university”), or have a silent “h” at the beginning (like “honest”).
- Would you like to go see a dance performance with me? (“a” before consonant)
- The student transferred to a university with a better physics department. (“a” before consonant sound)
- I have an idea I want to talk about. (“an” before vowel)
- I can spend an hour helping you. (“an” before vowel sound)
- Before Noun Phrases:
- I have a useful tool to fix a flat tire. (“a” before consonant sound)
- That’s an idiotic statement. (“an” before vowel)
- Can you get me a piece of almond cake? (“a” before consonant)
When to leave out “a/an:”
When you use another determiner, such as “her,” “his,” “my,” “this,” or “that,” you can leave out the indefinite article.
- Is this her book?
- Can you see that mountain in the distance?
The: Indicating Shared Knowledge
“The” is called the definite article, and is used to indicate that the speaker and the listener share a common knowledge about the noun it modifies. The can be used with singular, plural, and uncountable nouns.
“The” to refer to a noun introduced earlier with an indefinite article:
- I found an amazing book at the library today. The book is about pirates.
- I saw a flower I didn’t recognize in my neighbor’s garden, and asked her what the flower is called.
“The” to refer to a unique noun:
When there’s only one of something, and most people know about it, we often put “the” in front of it:
- Astronauts have travelled to the moon.
- Have you been to China and seen the Great Wall?
- Humans shouldn’t take the earth for granted.
“The” to refer to common knowledge:
When the speaker and the listener are both very familiar with the noun being indicated, we often use “the.” The following statements could be said between a couple living together or close friends:
- Have you seen the keys?
- One of us has to pick up the kids from school.
- The car has a flat tire.
- The coffee here is terrible.
“The” explained by a phrase or clause later in the sentence:
Sometimes, a noun will be made specific by descriptive words that come after it in a sentence.
- Could you hand me the book on the high shelf?
- The cat I took in from the shelter has fleas.
- I saw all the movies that you recommended.
At other times, the modifying clause or phrase doesn’t make the noun more specific, but just adds extra information. In these cases, don’t use “the.”
- A child wearing blue overalls ran by.
- I want to find a restaurant that serves sushi.
No Article (a.k.a. the “Zero Article”)
Articles can be left out before plural nouns as long as the plural nouns are not specific. In the examples below, no article is indicated by “[ ].” You can also use modifiers like “some” “many” or “a few” (among others):
- I’m going to buy [ ] apples today.
- [ ] Bald eagles nest here in the winter.
- I ate some some grapes and read a few books this afternoon.
Articles are not used when we make generalizations with either uncountable or plural countable nouns.
- I like working with [ ] children.
- [ ] Students in medical school work too hard.
- I usually take [ ] swimming lessons on Wednesdays.
- [ ] Honesty will get you far in life.
When we use uncountable nouns, but not specific uncountable nouns, articles are not used:
- God said, “Let there be [ ] light.”
- I want to eat [ ] pizza for dinner.
- Are you going to major in [ ] chemistry or [ ] physics?
- If you want [ ] advice, ask your mother.
*These are the general rules for using articles, but there are many, many exceptions, which are covered in Advanced Article Usage.