English Grammar Guide

Articles - definite and indefinite

A quick and simple guide to the definitive and infinitive article

Using Articles

What is an article?

Basically, an article is an adjective. Like adjectives, articles modify nouns. English has three articles: 'the', 'a', 'an'. We use 'the' to refer to specific or particular nouns; We use 'a'or 'an' to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. We call 'the' the definite article and 'a/an' are called indefinite articles.

  • the = definite article

  • a/an = indefinite article

'The' is used to refer to specific or particular members of a group, or a specific noun.
For example, if we say:

  • 'Let's read the book', we mean a specific book. (If we say, 'Let's read a book', we mean any book and not a specific book.)

  • 'I just saw the most popular movie of the year.' (There are many movies, but only one movie can be the most popular.)

'A/an' are used to refer to one non-specific or non-particular member of the group.

  • For example, 'I would like to go see a movie.' (Here, we're not talking about a specific movie. We're talking about any movie.)

Indefinite Articles: a and an

'A' and 'an' indicate that the noun modified is indefinite, referring to any member of a group.

For example:

  • 'My daughter really wants a puppy for Christmas.'
    This refers to any puppy, and not to one specific puppy.

  • 'Somebody call a policeman!'
    This refers to any policeman. We don't need a specific policeman; we need any policeman who is available.

  • 'When I was at the zoo, I saw an elephant!'
    Here, we're talking about a single, non-specific thing, in this case an elephant. There may be several elephants at the zoo, but we're talking about one particular elephant.

Remember, using 'a' or 'an' depends on the sound that begins the next word. So...

  • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant: a boy; a car; a bike; a zoo; a dog

  • an + singular noun beginning with a vowel: an elephant; an egg; an apple; an idiot; an orange

  • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant sound: a university (sounds like 'you-ni-ver-sity,' i.e. begins with a consonant 'y' sound, so 'a' is used); a union; a unicycle

  • an + nouns starting with silent h : an hour

  • a + nouns starting with a pronounced 'h': a horse

  • In some cases where 'h' is pronounced, such as 'historical', you can use an. However, 'a' is more commonly used and preferred.

  • These rules also apply when you use acronyms (NATO, UNESCO etc).

If the noun is modified by an adjective, the choice between 'a' and 'an' depends on the sound of the adjective that immediately follows the article:

  • a broken egg (begins with a consonant, and consonant sound)

  • an unusual problem (begins with a vowel, and a vowel sound)

  • a European country (Although this begins with a vowel, the word is pronounced 'yer-o-pi-an' or 'yor-o-pi-an' and so begins with a consonant 'y' sound)

Also, indefinite articles are used to indicate membership in a group:

  • I am a teacher. (I am a member of a large group known as teachers.)

  • Michael is an Irishman. (Michael is a member of the people known as Irish.)

  • Silvio is a practicing christian. (Silvio is a member of a group of people called christians)

Definite Article: 'the'

The definite article is used before singular and plural nouns when the noun is specific or particular. The indicates that the noun is definite and that it refers to a specific member of a group.

For example:

  • 'The dog that bit me was black and white.' Here, we're talking about a specific dog, the dog that bit me.

  • 'I was very happy with the mechanic who fixed my car!' Here, we're talking about a particular mechanic, even if there were many other mechanics present.

  • 'I saw the baby elephant at the zoo.' Here, we're talking about a specific noun. There was only one baby elephant at the zoo.

Countable and Uncountable Nouns
'The' can be used with uncountable nouns, or the article can be omitted entirely.

  • 'He spilled the milk all over the floor' (some specific milk, perhaps the only milk you had) or 'He spilled milk all over the floor' (any or some milk).

'A/an' can only be used with countable nouns.

  • 'I need a bottle of water.'

  • 'I need a new car.'

Geographical nouns
There are some specific rules for using 'the' with geographical nouns.

We don't use 'the' before:

  • Names of most countries/territories: Italy, Mexico, Bolivia; however,the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the United States, the United Kingdom

  • Names of cities, towns, or states: Rome, London, Paris

  • Names of streets: Oxford Street, 5th Avenue

  • Names of lakes and bays: Lake Ontario, Lake Geneva except with a group of lakes like the Great Lakes, the Lake District

  • Names of mountains: Mount Everest, Mount Fuji except with ranges of mountains like the Andes or the Alps or unusual names like the Matterhorn

  • Names of continents (Asia, Europe)

  • Names of islands (Easter Island, Maui, Key West) except with island chains like the Aleutians, the Hebrides, or the Canary Islands

We do use 'the' before:

  • Names of rivers, oceans and seas: the Nile, the Pacific

  • Points on the globe: the Equator, the North Pole

  • Geographical areas: the Middle East, the West

  • Deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas: the Sahara, the Persian Gulf,the Black Forest, the Iberian Peninsula

Omission of Articles
Some common types of nouns that don't take an article are:

  • Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian (unless you are referring to the population of the nation: "The Spanish are known for their hospitality.")

  • Names of sports: volleyball, hockey, baseball

  • Names of academic subjects: mathematics, biology, history, computer science