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ARTICLES

A vs. An

Our three-part English Articles Tutorial gives you 25 useful tips to help you use articles like a native speaker. Here in part 1, we introduce A and AN and teach you how to choose between the two.

USE 1

Article A is used before singular, countable nouns which begin with consonant sounds.

Examples

  • He is a teacher.
  • She doesn’t own a car.
  • I saw a bear at the zoo.

USE 2

The article AN is used before singular, countable nouns which begin with vowel sounds.

Examples

  • He is an actor.
  • She didn’t get an invitation.
  • I saw an eagle at the zoo.

USE 3

Remember that A(AN) means “one” or “a single”. You cannot use A(AN) with plural nouns.

Examples

  • I saw a bear in Yellowstone National Park. Not Correct
  • I saw bears in Yellowstone National Park. Correct

USE 4

If there is an adjective or an adverb-adjective combination before the noun, A(AN) should agree with the first sound in the adjective or the adverb-adjective combination.

Examples

  • He is an excellent teacher.
  • I saw a really beautiful eagle at the zoo.

USE 5

Use A before words such as “European” or “university” which sound like they start with a consonant even if the first letter is a vowel. Also use A before letters and numbers which sound like they begin with a consonant, such as “U”, “J”, “1” or “9”. Remember, it is the sound, not the important spelling the spelling which is important. For example, “1” is spelt O-N-E; however, it is pronounced “won” as it starts with a “W”.

Examples

  • She has a euro. Sounds like “you-go”.
  • That number is a “1”. Sounds like “won”.

USE 6

Use AN before words such as “hour” which sound like they start with a vowel even if the first letter is a consonant. Also use AN before letters and numbers which sound like they begin with a vowel, such as “F” or “8”. Remember, it is the sound, not the important spelling. For example, “F” is pronounced “eff” as it starts with an “E”.

Examples

  • I only have an hour for lunch. Sounds like “au-er”.
  • Does his name begin with an “F”? Sounds like “eff”.

USE 7

Some words such as “herb” or “hospital” are more complicated because they are pronounced differently in different English accents. In most American accents, the “h” in “herb” is silent, so Americans usually say “a herb”. In many British accents, the “h” in “herb” is pronounced, so many British say “a herb”. In some British accents, the “h” in hospital is silent, so some British will say “a hospital” instead of “a hospital”.

USE 8

In English, some nouns are considered uncountable such as information, air, advice, salt and fun. We do not use A(AN) with these uncountable nouns. (Learn more about countable and uncountable nouns.)

Examples

  • She gives a good advice. Not Correct
  • She gives good advice. Correct

A(An) vs. The

In part 2 of the English Articles Tutorial, we continue our list of 25 articles usage tips. Here, we introduce the article THE and discuss how to choose between the indefinite articles A(AN) and the definite article THE.

USE 9

A and AN are called indefinite articles. “Indefinite” means “not specific”. Use A(AN) when you are talking about a thing in general, NOT a specific thing.

Examples

  • I need a phone. Not a specific phone, any phone
  • Mark wants a bicycle. Not a particular bicycle, a bicycle in general
  • Do you have a driver’s license? In general

Use A(AN) when talking about a thing that is new, unknown, or introduced to a listener for the first time. Also, use A(AN) when you are asking about the existence of something.

Examples

  • I have a car. The car is being introduced.
  • Tom is a teacher. This is new information to the listener.
  • Is there a dictionary in your backpack? Asking about the existence of the dictionary

Similarly, use A(AN) to introduce what type of thing we are talking about.

Examples

  • That is an excellent book. Describing the kind of book
  • Do you live in a big house? Asking about the kind of house
  • I ate a thick, juicy steak. Describing the kind of steak

REMEMBER: You cannot use A(AN) with plural nouns because A(AN) means “one” or “a single”.

Examples

  • I saw a bear in Yellowstone National Park. Not Correct
  • I saw bears in Yellowstone National Park. Correct

USE 10

THE is called a definite article. “Definite” means “specific”. Use THE when talking about something which is already known to the listener or which has been previously mentioned, introduced, or discussed.

Examples

  • I have a cat. The cat is black.
  • There is a book in my backpack. The book is very heavy.
  • Do you know where I left the car keys? The listener knows which specific car keys you are talking about.
  • Do you own a car? Is the car blue? You assume they do have a car after asking about it in the first sentence.
  • Nobody lives on the Moon. The Moon is known to everyone.

IMPORTANT: You can use THE with both singular nouns and plural nouns.

Examples

  • I saw the bear in Yellowstone National Park. Correct
  • I saw the bears in Yellowstone National Park. Correct

USE 11

Many clauses and phrases make the noun known to the listener by telling the listener which person or thing we are talking about. Let’s look at an example sentence:

Can you give me the book on the table?

We use THE in this sentence because the phrase “on the table” tells the listener which book we are referring to. We are not talking about other books, we are talking about a specific book that the listener can see or already knows about. Learning to recognize such identifying clauses and phrases will help you use THE correctly.

Examples

  • Did you read the book which I gave you?
  • He didn’t like the movie that you suggested.
  • He loved the dessert with chocolate and cherries.
  • The phone on my desk belongs to Ken.
  • Did you know the man who was talking to Leonie?

HOWEVER: Not all clauses and phrases make the noun known to the listener. Some are simply descriptive. They add extra information, but they do not tell the listener which specific thing we are talking about.

Examples

  • He bought the house with a big backyardThis combination tells the listener which specific house he bought.
  • He bought a house with a big backyardThis combination tells the listener what kind of house he bought, but not the specific house he bought.

Advanced Article Usage

In part 3 of the English Articles Tutorial, we finish up our list of 25 articles usage tips. Here, we take a look at some of the exceptions and more advanced topics relating to the use of A(AN) and THE.

USE 12

A(AN) can be used like the word “per”.

Examples

  • Apples currently cost $1.30 a pound.
  • Cheetahs can run 60 miles an hour.
  • Do you want $150 a person for the tour?

USE 13

Use THE with nouns modified by ranking or ordering expressions such as “the first”, “the second”, “the third”, “the next”, “the last”, “the previous”, “the following”, “the penultimate”, etc.

Examples

  • This is the fifth day of our conference.
  • I’ll pay the next time we have dinner.
  • Don’t forget the following rule.

USE 14

Use THE with superlatives such as “the best”, “the biggest”, “the most important”, “the least interesting”, etc.

Examples

  • This is the best day ever.
  • That is the most expensive hotel room I’ve ever heard of in my life.
  • He told the funniest joke!

Comparative forms, such as “bigger”, “better”, “more” can be used with both A(AN) and THE and follow general article usage.

Examples

  • I like the bigger roller coaster.
  • He has a more expensive car than I do.

HOWEVER: THE is often used with comparative forms (bigger) rather than superlative forms (biggest) when comparing only two things. This is commonly used in phrases such as “the bigger of the two”.

Examples

  • Jessie and Shauna are both smart. But I think Shauna is the smarter of the two.
  • Between Jason’s son and his daughter, his daughter is the better athlete.

USE 15

Do not use articles when generalizing about uncountable nouns and plural countable nouns.

Examples

  • Curiosity is a great trait. Uncountable
  • Water is an important resource. Uncountable
  • Vegetables are good for you. Plural countable

USE 16

English speakers often use THE plus a singular noun when they talk about or make generalizations about certain topics, including:

  • musical instruments (the piano, the guitar, the flute)
  • plants (the coconut palm, the saguaro, the baobab)
  • animals (the leopard, the elephant, the lowland gorilla)
  • inventions (the steam engine, the plane, the light bulb)
  • currencies (the dollar, the euro, the yen)
  • body parts (the head, the eye, the ear)

Examples

  • I play the piano.
  • The sequoia tree is native to California.
  • The dolphin is a very intelligent animal.
  • The Wright brothers invented the aeroplane.
  • Right now, the euro is stronger than the dollar.
  • Cheryl got poked in the eye.

In general, English speakers choose to use THE in this way to give the noun a more abstract or conceptual sound. We choose to say “the piano” to make it sound more like an abstract art form. Similarly, “the dolphin” sounds more like we are referring to the species. Moreover, “the plane” has a more conceptual sound that conveys the idea of the invention. But remember, you can also make generalizations about these topics using plurals as in USE 15.

USE 17

The expressions “a few” and “a little” mean “some” and express the idea that you have more than expected.

Examples

  • He always carries a few dollars for emergencies.
  • He had a little difficulty with his homework.
  • She has a few friends who can help her move.

HOWEVER: The expressions “few” and “little” (without an article) mean “not much” and express the idea that you have less than expected.

Examples

  • Unfortunately, I had little time to enjoy New York because I had to work so much.
  • Sadly, he has few people in his life.
  • They have little money, so their daughter cannot pay her tuition.

BUT REMEMBER: When the words “only” or “just” are used, “a few” and “a little” also emphasize the meaning “not much”.

Examples

  • Unfortunately, I only had a little time to enjoy New York because I had to work so much.
  • Sadly, he just has a few people in his life.
  • They only have a little money, so their daughter cannot pay her tuition.

USE 18

Generally, articles are not used with the names of illnesses or diseases.

Examples

  • Dr Smith visits schools and universities to educate students on AIDS.
  • Oncologists are doctors who specialize in treating cancer.
  • Several medications can be used to treat malaria.

HOWEVER: There are some illnesses which require THE.

  • the mumps
  • the bubonic plague

MOREOVER: There are a few health conditions or illnesses that can be used with both A(AN) as well as THE and follow general article use. This category includes most aches, pains, growths, and attacks.

  • a cold
  • a heart attack
  • a stroke
  • a wart/tumour/growth / etc.
  • a sore throat / sore back/ sore foot / etc.
  • a headache / toothache / backache / etc.

REMEMBER: This last category follows general article use. Study the examples below.

Examples

  • John has a cold. The cold was pretty bad.
  • Nancy had a heart attack. The heart attack seriously weakened her heart.
  • Deb had a sore throat. The sore throat made it hard to talk.

USE 19

If a direction (north, west, southeast, left, right) directly follows a verb, do not use an article with the direction.

Examples

  • We need to walk south.
  • They drove north all day.
  • At the stop sign, turn left and walk three blocks.

HOWEVER: If a direction follows a preposition, you must use THE.

Examples

  • We need to walk to the south.
  • Our house is in the north.
  • The grocery store is on the right.

MOREOVER: Use THE with compass directions when referring to them as special geographic or cultural regions.

Examples

  • We love the South.
  • Have you ever visited the East?
  • The West has better national parks.

USE 20

THE can be used with plural family names to refer to the family as a group.

Examples

  • The Robinsons love to vacation in Florida.
  • The Shinoharas are originally from Japan.
  • My brother lives next door to the Jacksons.

USE 21

THE can be combined with certain adjectives to refer to a group of people such as “the blind”, “the elderly”, “the rich”, “the French”, “the Sioux”, etc.

Examples

  • He is elderlyAdjective
  • The organization helps the elderlyElderly people

REMEMBER: This is especially important in situations where nationalities or ethnic groups and their languages might be confused. In such situations, THE is used to specify that we are talking about the nationality or ethnic group rather than the language.

Examples

  • I like FrenchLanguage
  • I like the FrenchThe French people

HOWEVER: When generalizing about nationalities or ethnic groups that end in “-and”, such as “Americans”, “Mexicans”, and “Hawaiians”, THE is not usually used.

Examples

  • Indians watch a lot of TVs.

USE 22

Do not use THE with the names of most countries unless the name contains a word such as “States”, “Kingdom”, “Republic”, “Emirates”, “Union”, “Coast”, etc.

Examples

  • I love India.
  • He lives in India.

SIMILARLY: Don’t use THE with states, provinces, and cities unless THE is specifically part of the name or contains a word such as “Territory” or “Coast”.

Examples

  • He lives in Delhi.
  • Kashmir is in India.

EXCEPTIONS: THE is used with “the Netherlands” as well as with many nations which are island chains, such as “the Philippines”, “the Maldives”, “the Bahamas”, etc. Additionally, in the past, THE was used with certain countries such as “Sudan”, “the Gambia”, and “the Congo”; this usage is becoming less common.

Examples

  • He lives in the Netherlands.
  • I visited the Bahamas last year.

USE 23

Use THE with the names of:

  • seas
  • coasts
  • rivers
  • archipelagos
  • the Sun, the Moon
  • extraordinary works of art or architecture (such as the Red Fort, the Taj Mahal)
  • bridges (except Tower Bridge)
  • pagodas
  • mountain chains
  • deserts
  • references on the globe (such as the Equator, the North Pole)
  • swamps
  • geographic regions (such as the Northwest, the Middle East)
  • hotels
  • theatres
  • oceans
  • collections of lakes (such as the Great Lakes)
  • museums
  • institutes
  • skyscrapers

Examples

  • Akshay visited the City Palace Museum, a famous museum in Jaipur.
  • I would love to visit the Southern part of India.
  • Sathvik walked over to Some expressions on the Bridge.

USE 24

Do not use an article with:

  • individual lakes
  • streets (except the High Street)
  • universities
  • beaches
  • waterfalls
  • holidays
  • canyons (except the Grand Canyon)
  • people’s first names
  • public squares
  • hospitals
  • days
  • stadiums
  • months
  • malls
  • parks
  • churches
  • temples
  • individual mountains (except the Matterhorn)
  • colleges
  • languages
  • religions
  • individual islands

Examples

  • Have you ever visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris?
  • Kenta is Buddhist.
  • We went camping in King’s Canyon.

HOWEVER: There are additional exceptions to some of the above categories. For example, THE is often used in the pattern “the … of …”.

Examples

  • The University of Colorado
  • The Temple of Ranakpur
  • The Cathedral of Siena

Use our Articles Flashcards to memorize the categories in Uses 23 and 24.

USE 25

Time expressions can be especially confusing. THE is used in some time expressions such as:

  • in the morning
  • in the afternoon
  • in the evening
  • during the night
  • during the day
  • the day before yesterday
  • the day after tomorrow
  • the fall
  • the summer

Examples

  • We’ll meet in the morning.
  • Mounika loves to go camping in the fall.
  • There was a small earthquake during the night in Delhi.

HOWEVER: In other time expressions, no article is used:

  • yesterday
  • at noon
  • at midnight
  • every year
  • tomorrow
  • all-day
  • all night
  • all month
  • every month
  • at night
  • last night
  • last Friday

Examples

  • Did you sleep well last night?
  • I’ll see you tomorrow.
  • We are meeting for lunch at noon.

MOREOVER: Some expressions can take both A(AN) and THE such as:

  • a/the whole day
  • a/the whole month
  • an/the entire year
  • an/the entire decade

Examples

  • He spent a whole month in Hawaii. I wish I could do that.
  • I took last Friday off to go to the doctor. I spent the whole day sitting in his office.
  • When she first moved to Germany, it took an entire year for her to learn enough German to go shopping.
  • Sajan hated the ’90s. He spent the whole decade in a dead-end job struggling to pay his rent.

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