Articles - definite and indefinite
A quick and simple guide to the definitive and infinitive article
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.
'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.
'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.'
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