You'll learn everything you need to know about articles in this article. There'll be definitions, examples, exceptions, and exceptional cases.
This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.
Before we start, you should know that there are three articles in the English language:
Articles are determiners that give more information about the noun that follows them, which makes them similar to adjectives. There are two different kinds of articles: definite and indefinite.
The rules around using definite vs. indefinite articles leave the door open for confusion because whether or not a sentence is vague or specific is sometimes open to interpretation.
Nonetheless, I believe this article will help clarify indefinite or definite articles and when you should use them.
There is one definite article in the English language: "the." You use it with a specific noun - singular or plural.
Using "the" makes it clear that you are talking about a specific thing. See the following examples.
I love coffee.
I love the coffee.
The first sentence is a statement to show that the person loves coffee in general.
The second sentence shows the speaker is being specific about a specific coffee. They may be talking about the coffee at a particular cafe or the coffee they are drinking as they speak. Here are some examples of the sentence in context:
Yes, let's go to Ed's Cafe. I love the coffee there.
It's nice of you to welcome us into your home Elsie. And thanks for the coffee.
"The" can also be used with plural nouns. Here are some examples:
The cats are roaming in the garden.
Have you seen the fireworks? They're breathtaking!
I love the colors in your kitchen.
"The" can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns, so long as you are talking about something specific. Here are some examples of "the" with count nouns:
Can you pass me the pencil?
You've collected all the 20th-century coins.
We're going to the mall.
Now for some examples of "the" with uncountable nouns:
Pass me the wine!
It would be best if you didn't skate on that lake; the ice is too thin.
I can't hear you over the music.
You can use "the" in the examples above because the wine, ice, and music are specific.
In the first sentence, the speaker is talking about a specific bottle or glass of wine. But you could also say:
I need wine!
In this case, the speaker isn't referring to any specific bottle or glass of wine; they'll be happy with any wine. The same applies to the two other examples and any uncountable noun.
There are two definite articles in the English language: "a" and "an." You use them with a noun that is non-specific and singular. When using "a" or "an," you show that you are not talking about a specific thing.
See the following examples:
I'd love a coffee!
Please pass me a pencil.
Let's try to find an elevator.
As you can see, the speaker isn't referring to a specific coffee, pencil, or elevator. Any will do.
When should you use "an" and when should you use "a"?
The general rule goes as follows:
But there are some exceptions. Of course! What did you expect? It wouldn't be English if there weren't.
If the noun begins with a silent consonant and a vowel sound, you should use "an." For example, with the word "honor," the "h" is silent. Therefore the first sound you hear is "o," a vowel sound. Therefore you should say "an honor."
That is not the case for the word "hospital," however, although both words "hospital" and "honor" begin with the same two letters. The "h" is not silent, meaning the word starts with a consonant sound, so you should say "a hospital."
The same applies the other way around, too. So if you have a noun that begins with a vowel, but the first sound pronounced is a consonant, you should use "a."
For example, "unicorn" begins with the vowel "u" but sounds like "y." Therefore it requires "a."
You are a unicorn.
Contrary to definite articles, indefinite articles don't work with plurals. That's because "a" and "an" are pretty much similar to "one." You can't say:
I'll bring a pencils tomorrow. ❌
But you can say:
I'll bring pencils tomorrow. ✅
You could also say, "I'll bring the pencils tomorrow," but then you'd be talking about specific pencils.
You can use indefinite articles with countable nouns but not with uncountable nouns.
Below are examples of "an" and "a" used with count nouns. I'll use the same examples as earlier to illustrate the difference in meaning.
Can you pass me a pencil?
Are you starting a coin collection?
We're going to a mall.
You can't use indefinite articles for uncountable nouns, however. To illustrate, look at the following incorrect sentences:
Pass me a wine! ❌
An ice is too thin to skate on. ❌
I can't hear you over a loud music. ❌
If you wanted to use "a" or "an" for "wine," "ice," and "music," you would need to make some changes to the sentence so that the nouns are no longer uncountable. Let's see this in action:
Pass me a wine glass!
Can I have an ice cube?
He's just released a music record.
The nouns in the above sentence are no longer "wine," "ice," and "music"; they are "wine glass," "ice cube," and "music record." Therefore they are no longer uncountable nouns.
Zero articles are for circumstances when you don't need to use an article. Below I'll list some of those circumstances.
Abstract nouns are the uncountable kind.
Take as an example the word "knowledge." You can't count it, so it's uncountable. You can't touch or feel it, so it's also abstract.
You'll often hear that you don't use an article with an abstract noun, but this isn't wholly true.
Abstract nouns can be used in a vague or specific context.
Here's an example of "knowledge" in a vague context:
Bill has a lot of knowledge which he uses to his advantage.
In the sentence above, the context is vague because we know that Bill has a lot of knowledge, but we don't know what kind of knowledge. So we don't use an article.
Now let's see it in a specific context:
Bill has the knowledge required for the job.
In the sentence above, we know what kind of knowledge Bill has: the type required for the job. The context isn't vague, so we use a definite article.
So when deciding whether or not to use an article, the important thing is the context, not the noun.
It goes back to what we learned earlier about only using a definite article in specific contexts.
Let's look at some more examples of abstract nouns, first in vague contexts, then in specific contexts:
He loves playing football.
Are you watching the football match tonight?
What do you usually like to eat for breakfast?
The breakfast at the Hilton is delicious!
I used to love school; now I find it a bit boring.
The school I go to is fantastic.
He's always wanted to play chess.
The chess game's been going on for hours.
We're traveling by car; we're just not sure who's yet.
We should take the car to the garage.
See how the vague statements don't take an article, and the ones in specific contexts do.
You don't need to use an article if you're making a general statement about a plural noun. For example:
Be careful! Motorbikes can be dangerous.
Here you aren't talking about a specific motorbike. You are talking about motorbikes in general.
Let's look at some more examples of general statements about a plural noun:
Water parks are so much fun.
I've noticed monkeys seem to really love bananas.
Did you know airplanes are safer than cars?
Those last two examples are a double whammy as they each contain not one but two plural nouns that present general statements. Notice how neither has an article.
Places, people, languages, times, academic subjects, and other proper nouns don't require an article. Here are some examples:
We landed in Paris last night.
Do you think we'll ever land on Mars?
I live on East Street.
Let's go to Central Park.
I'm studying at the University of Chicago.
Don't enter room 237!
The train leaves from platform nine and three-quarters.
**note: the last two examples aren't proper nouns, but they are still places, so I included them.***
Do you know who Mozart was?
I don't know where Mary is.
I'm a fan of actor Idris Elba.
I don't speak French.
Have you ever been to Australia?
I'd love to learn Mandarin.
I can't believe it's already October!
I'll be arriving on Monday evening.
Summertime is my favorite season.
Everything is so peaceful at nighttime.
**Ok, so that last example isn't a proper noun either, but it's a time, so I included it.**
I'm currently studying History of Art.
Have you done your Geography homework yet?
I'm thinking of doing a Science major.
Another situation when you don't need to use an article is when there's a dependent possessive pronoun.
Dependent possessive pronouns are as follows:
You don't need an article in a sentence with a dependent possessive pronoun because the pronoun replaces the article.
Let's see some examples:
We're going to her house.
Is this your glass?
Why are you talking to my sister?
There is one more thing you need to know about articles. Sometimes an article will precede an adjective instead of a noun. This can happen when an adjective is used in the sentence to modify the noun.
If an adjective modifies the noun, whether or not you'll use "a" or "an" depends on the adjective's beginning sound. For example:
You have an unbelievable house, Shirley.
In the sentence above, the noun "house" begins with the sound "h" - a consonant - so the rule dictates that you should use "a." However, since the adjective "unbelievable" modifies the noun "house," and the adjective begins with the sound "u" - a vowel - you should use "an."
In the first section of this article, I explained that when choosing the correct indefinite article to use, you should look at the sound of the word following the article.
Now you know this applies whether the following word is a noun or an adjective.
Let's see more examples of sentences with adjectives that change which article applies.
That is a beautiful animal.
It's an honorable thing to do.
We live in an extremely large castle.
Notice that the last example includes two modifiers for the noun.
That concludes our comprehensive article about, well, articles. If you found it helpful, check out our other articles about grammatical concepts in our Grammar Book.
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Articles can be tricky to get the hang of due to the rules around a noun being general or specific, as it's not always easy to determine which of the two a sentence is.
But the good news is that with a bit of practice, you'll get it, and once you get it, you won't forget it. Just like riding a bike!
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