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Grammar: Articles

Article Basics

What is an article?

  • Articles (a, an, the) are determiners or noun markers that function to specify if the noun is general or specific in its reference. Often the article chosen depends on if the writer and the reader understand the reference of the noun.
  • The articles a and an are indefinite articles. They are used with a singular countable noun when the noun referred to is nonspecific or generic.
  • The article the is a definite article. It is used to show specific reference and can be used with both singular and plural nouns and with both countable and uncountable nouns.

Many languages do not use articles (a, an, and the), or if they do exist, the way they are used may be different than in English. Multilingual writers often find article usage to be one of the most difficult concepts to learn. Although there are some rules about article usage to help, there are also quite a few exceptions. Therefore, learning to use articles accurately takes a long time. To master article usage, it is necessary to do a great deal of reading, notice how articles are used in published texts, and take notes that can apply back to your own writing.

To get started, please read this blogpost on The Argument for Articles.

A few important definitions to keep in mind:

  • Countable noun: The noun has both a singular and plural form. The plural is usually formed by adding an –s or an –es to the end of it.
    • one horse, two horses
    • one chair, two chairs
    • one match, two matches
    Countable nouns may also have irregular plural forms. Many of these forms come from earlier forms of English.
    • one child, two children
    • one mouse, two mice
  • Uncountable noun: The noun refers to something that cannot be counted. It does not have a plural form.
    • Information
    • Grammar
  • Proper noun: The name of a person, place, or organization and is spelled with capital letters.
    • Tim Smith
    • McDonalds

Please see this webpage for more about countable and uncountable nouns.

A/An

When to use a or an

A and an are used with singular countable nouns when the noun is nonspecific or generic.

  • I do not own a car.
    • In this sentence, car is a singular countable noun that is not specific. It could be any car.
  • She would like to go to a university that specializes in teaching.
    • University is a singular countable noun. Although it begins with a vowel, the first sound of the word is /j/ or “y.” Thus, a instead of an is used. In this sentence, it is also generic (it could be any university with this specialization, not a specific one).
  • I would like to eat an apple.
    • In this sentence, apple is a singular countable noun that is not specific. It could be any apple.

A is used when the noun that follows begins with a consonant sound.

  • a book
  • a pen
  • a uniform (Note that uniform starts with a vowel, but the first sound is /j/ or a “y” sound. Therefore a instead of an is used here.)

An is used when the noun that follows begins with a vowel sound.

  • an elephant
  • an American
  • an MBA (Note that MBA starts with a consonant, but the first sound is /Ɛ/ or a short “e” sound. Therefore, an instead of a is used here.)

Sometimes a or an can be used for first mention (the first time the noun is mentioned). Then, in subsequent sentences, the article the is used instead.

  • He would like to live in a large house. The house should have at least three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
    • In the first sentence (first mention), a is used because it is referring to a nonspecified house. In the second sentence, the is used because now the house has been specified.

The

When to use the

The is used with both singular and plural nouns and with both countable and uncountable nouns when the noun is specific.

  • The book that I read last night was great.
    • In this sentence, book is a singular, countable noun. It is also specific because of the phrase “that I read last night.” The writer and reader (or speaker and listener) know which book is being referred to.
  • The books assigned for this class are very useful.
    • In this sentence, books is a plural, countable noun. It is also specific because of the phrase “for this class.” The writer and reader (or speaker and listener) know which books are being referred to.
  • The advice you gave me was very helpful.
    • In this sentence, advice an uncountable noun. However, it is specific because of the phrase “you gave me.” It is clear which piece of advice was helpful.

Here are some more specifics:

The is used in the following categories of proper nouns:

  • Museums and art galleries: the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Art
  • Buildings: the Empire State Building, the Willis Tower
  • Seas and oceans: the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean
  • Rivers: the Mississippi, the Nile
  • Deserts: the Sahara Desert, the Sonora Desert
  • Periods and events in history: the Dark Ages, the Civil War
  • Bridges: the London Bridge, the Mackinac Bridge
  • Parts of a country: the South, the Upper Midwest

In general, use the with plural proper nouns.

  • the Great Lakes
  • the French
  • the Rockies (as in the Rocky Mountains)

The is often used with proper nouns that include an “of” phrase.

  • the United States of America
  • the University of Minnesota
  • the International Swimming Hall of Fame

Use the when the noun being referred to is unique because of our understanding of the world.

  • The Earth moves around the sun.
  • Wolves howl at the moon.

Use the when a noun can be made specific from a previous mention in the text. This is also known as second or subsequent mention.

  • My son bought a cat. I am looking after the cat while he is on vacation.
  • I read a good book. The book was about how to use articles correctly in English.

The is used with superlative adjectives, which are necessarily unique (the first, the second, the biggest, the smallest, the next, the only, etc.).

  • It was the first study to address the issue.
  • She was the weakest participant.
  • He was the only person to drop out of the study.

Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad, and Finegan (1999) found that the is about twice as common as a or an in academic writing. This may be because writers at this level often focus on overall ideas and categories (generic reference, usually no article) and on specific references (definite reference, the article the).

  • Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman grammar of written and spoken English. Harlow, England: Pearson.

No Article--Generic Reference

Writers sometimes struggle with the choice to include an article or to leave it out altogether. Keep in mind that if the noun is singular, countable, and nonspecific or generic (e.g., book, author), the articles a and an may be used. However, if the noun is countable and plural (e.g.., research studies) or uncountable (e.g., information) and it is being used in a nonspecific or generic way, no article is used.

Here are some more specifics:

  • No article is used when a plural countable noun is generic or nonspecific.
    • I bought new pens and pencils at the store. (general, not specific ones)
    • Cats have big eyes that can see in the dark. (cats in general, all of them)
    • Babies cry a lot. (babies in general, all of them)
  • No article is used when a noncount noun is generic or nonspecific.
    • I bought milk and rice at the store. (generic reference)
    • We were assigned homework in this class. (generic reference)
    • There has been previous research on the topic. (generic reference)

Articles in Phrases and Idiomatic Expressions

Sometimes article usage in English does not follow a specific rule. These expressions must be memorized instead.

Here are some examples of phrases where article usage is not predictable:

  • Destinations: go to the store, go to the bank, but go to school, go to church, go to bed, go home
  • Locations: in school, at home, in bed, but in the hospital (in American English)
  • Parts of the day: in the morning, in the evening, but at night
  • Chores: mow the lawn, do the dishes, do the cleaning

There are also numerous idiomatic expressions in English that contain nouns. Some of these also contain articles while others do not.

Here are just a few examples:

  • To give someone a hand
  • In the end
  • To be on time

Knowledge Check: Articles