How to Use Articles (The, A, An)

Almost every sentence that you say, hear, read, or write contains articles, yet most people cannot define what role these words play in the English language. Simply put, articles define a noun as particular or non-particular. The definite article the is used for specific nouns, while the indefinite article a or an is used for non-specific nouns, as seen in the following examples:

Donald wants to eat dinner at the new restaurant in Los Angeles.

Donald wants to eat dinner at a new restaurant in Los Angeles.

While both sentences are grammatically correct, they have slightly different meanings. The use of the article the in the first sentence makes it clear that Donald is referring to a specific restaurant. The use of the article a in the second sentence shows that Donald is simply looking for any new culinary experience the city has to offer.

The: The Definite Article

As mentioned above, the word the limits the noun being modified to something singular and specific. One of the most common words in the English language, the can be used with singular, plural, and uncountable nouns, as seen below:

Singular: She went to the rally about gun violence this afternoon.

Plural: She went to the rallies about gun violence this week.

Uncountable: She could feel the passion in the air at the rally.

A/An: The Indefinite Article

The indefinite articles of a and an are used when the noun being modified is general and non-specific. For example:

John asked Sophie to buy a bottle of wine to have with dinner.

The children are excited to see an elephant at the zoo today.

In the first sentence, John is not concerned with which particular bottle of wine he will have with dinner, but rather that Sophie should buy any bottle. In the second sentence, the children don’t care which elephant they will see at the zoo, but simply that they will see any elephant.

Unlike the, indefinite articles can only be used before singular nouns:

Singular: I tried to pass her a cup.

Plural: I tried to pass her a cups.

Uncountable: I tried to pass her a water.

 

Adverbs

Using Indefinite Articles With Uncountable Nouns

Uncountable nouns refer to things that we cannot count with numbers, such as liquids (water, wine, tea), abstract concepts (love, anger, knowledge), or things that are too big, small, numerous or amorphous to be counted (air, sand, rice).

While uncountable nouns cannot be modified with a or an, which are only used for singular nouns, a quantity of an uncountable noun can be expressed using words like some and a lot of or countable units, like a handful of or 1 kg of.

For example, let’s take another look at the incorrect sentence above:

I tried to pass her a water.

Water is an uncountable noun that cannot be preceded by an indefinite article, but it can be modified using other words:

I tried to pass her some water.

I tried to pass her a cup of water.

Here is another example:

The new mother did a research about the effects of vaccines.

The new mother did a great deal of research about the effects of vaccines.

The new mother did an hour of research about the effects of vaccines.

When to Use A or An

The indefinite articles a and an have the exact same meaning and purpose, but a is used before a word that begins with a consonant, while an precedes a word that begins with a vowel. For example:

He felt like going to a party.

She drinks an ice coffee every afternoon.

He felt like going to an party.

She drinks a ice coffee every afternoon.

As with every rule, there are some exceptions. In cases where the first letter of a word is a vowel, but it is pronounced as a consonant, or where the first letter of a word is a consonant, but it is pronounced as a vowel, use the article that matches the sound.

For example, the word unicorn starts with a vowel, but it sounds like it starts with the letter Y, so it is preceded by a:

Lilly’s backpack was pink with a unicorn.

Lilly’s backpack was pink with an unicorn.

Similarly, the word honest starts with a silent H, so even though it is a consonant, it is preceded by an:

The woman was intent on finding an honest lawyer.

The woman was intent on finding a honest lawyer.

This rule also applies to acronyms and initials: vowel sounds are preceded by an, and consonant sounds are preceded by a, regardless of what the first letter of the word actually is:

The intern forgot to put a URL on the business card.

We bought an LCD display screen on sale.

The intern forgot to put an URL on the business card.

We bought a LCD display screen on sale.

When using an indefinite article before a noun that is also modified by an adjective, choose whether to use a or an based on the first letter of the word immediately following the article, regardless of whether it is a noun or adjective:

I saw a big elephant at the zoo.

We had an amazing time in New York.

In the first sentence, even though the noun being modified begins with a vowel, the article a is used, because it is immediately followed by the adjective, which begins with a consonant. The second example demonstrates the opposite situation.

Omitting Articles

There are certain situations where it is grammatically incorrect to use articles:

  • Before possessive pronouns, such as my, its, and his.

    The girls threw their ball over the fence.

    The girls threw the their ball over the fence.

  • Before many languages and nationalities, such as French, Chinese, and English.

    I am learning Spanish.

    I am learning the Spanish.

  • Before a mass noun or abstract concept:

    Love conquers all.

    The love conquers all.

  • Before meals.

    Come over for lunch.

    Come over for a lunch.

  • Before academic subjects and sports, such as hockey and geography.

    She improved her lifestyle with yoga.

    She improved her lifestyle with the yoga.

  • Before specific institutions, like school, prison, or hospital.

    Today is my son’s first day of school.

    Today is my son’s first day of the school.

Articles can be confusing, especially for non-native English speakers whose mother tongue does not contain an equivalent. Here is a summary of the basic rules:

  • Use the definite article the with specific nouns.
  • Use the indefinite article a or an with non-specific nouns.
  • Use a before words that begin with a consonant or vowel that sounds like a consonant.
  • Use an before words that begin with a vowel or a consonant that sounds like a vowel.

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