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Grammar and Mechanics: Articles

Article Basics

What is an article?

  • Articles (a, an, the) are determiners or noun markers that indicate whether the noun is general or specific in its reference. Often the article chosen depends on whether the writer and the reader understand the reference of the noun.
  • The indefinite articles a and an are used with a singular countable noun when the noun referred to is nonspecific or generic.
  • The definite article the 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, they may be used differently 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 on how to use articles in writing.

Please see the SMRTguide: Article Usage Flowchart as well as the post on Articles and Count vs. Noncount Nouns for more information.

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 –s or –es to the end of it.
    • one document, two documents
    • one survey, two surveys
    • one business, two businesses
    Countable nouns may also have irregular plural forms.
    • one child, two children
    • one woman, two women
  • 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 capitalized.
    • Tim Smith
    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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


When to use a or an

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

  • I needed to find a framework to support my study.
    • In this sentence, framework is a singular countable noun that is not specific. It could be any framework.
  • Participant 2 shared that she wants to attend a university that specializes in teaching.
    • University is a singular countable noun. In this sentence, university is also generic (it could be any university with this specialization, not a specific one).
  • An implication is a possible result that is not explicitly stated.
    • In this sentence, implication is a singular countable noun that is not specific. The term is being defined here.

Sometimes, a or an can be used for first mention (the first time a noun is mentioned). Then, in subsequent sentences, the article the is used instead. when the noun that follows begins with a consonant sound.

  • I needed to find a participant who met all of the inclusion criteria. The participant needed to be female, be at least 18 years old, and be working in a managerial position.
    • In the first sentence (first mention), is used because it is referring to a nonspecified participant. In the second sentence, the is used because now the type of participant has been specified.



Choosing between a or an

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

  • a theory
  • a result
  • a unit (Note that the first letter of unit is a vowel, but the first sound is /j/ or a “y” sound. Therefore, is used instead of an here.)

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

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


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 noun could be specific based on the sentence itself or the context in which the sentence appears.

  • The purpose of this study was to determine specific strategies small business owners use to stay in business the first 5 years.
    • In this sentence, purpose is a singular, countable noun. It is also specific because of the phrase this study. The writer and reader (or speaker and listener) know which purpose is being referred to.
  • The independent variables included Type I and Type II diabetes.
    • In this sentence, variables is a plural, countable noun. They are specific because the writer and reader (or speaker and listener) know which variables are being referred to.
  • The research I conducted can help bring about social change. 
    • In this sentence, research is an uncountable noun. However, it is specific because of the phrase I conducted. It is clear which research is being referred to.

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 (referring to the people)
  • 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 a noun can be made specific from a previous mention in the text. This is also known as second or subsequent mention.

  • Dissertations must be driven by a research question. The research question can be addressed through qualitative, quantitative, or mixed method designs. 
  • I present a summary at the end of Chapter 1. In the summary, I highlight the main points of the chapter before transitioning to Chapter 2.

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. 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., program, researcher), 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.
    • It is important to define limitations and delimitations in a study. (general, not specific limitations and delimitations)
    • Qualitative research studies often include interviews. (qualitative research studies in general)
    • I recruited participants from the Walden research pool. (participants in general)
  • No article is used when a noncount noun is generic or nonspecific.
    • I did not find much evidence to support H01. (generic reference)
    • There has been previous research on the topic. (generic reference)
    • Education is often considered the key to success, and I would like to thank my committee for helping me achieve this goal. (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:

  • Destinationsgo to the library, go to the bankbut go to school, go to church, go to bed, go home
  • Locationsin school, at home, in bed, but in the hospital(in American English)
  • Parts of the dayin the morning, in the evening, but at night
  • Choresmow the lawn, do the dishes, do the cleaning

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

Here are just a few examples:

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