Definite and indefinite articles (a, an, the)

What is an article?

Articles are a part of grammar often included in the word class determiner.

In English, there are two articles: the indefinite article, a/an, and the definite article, the.

We use the to refer to something specific, and a/an to refer to something non-specific or general.

For example, if we say, “He’s married to an English woman.”, this could refer to any English woman, we don’t know specific which one he’s married to.

If we say, “He’s married to the English woman.”, we know which specific English woman he is married to.

Indefinite articles: 'a' and 'an'

Let’s have a closer look at the indefinite articles 'a' and 'an'.

'a' and 'an' are used to modify non-specific countable nouns. We don’t use them with plural nouns or uncountable nouns.

For example:

  1. “Let's watch a DVD.” We have more than one DVD we could watch, but we don't yet know which one we will choose.
  2. “She ate a banana.” There are probably several bananas, but we don't know which specific banana she ate.
  3. “She read a book.” There are many books, but we don't know which specific one she read.
  4. “His son really wants a ride in a helicopter for his birthday.” This could be a ride in any helicopter.
  5. “I’d love to go and see an opera this Christmas.” This is referring to any opera, not a specific opera.

'a' and 'an' are also used when we refer to what someone is, or what job they do.

Here are some examples:

  1. She’s an airline pilot.
  2. He's an electrician.
  3. She's a university student.
  4. He's a Muslim.

But remember, they are not used with uncountable nouns or plural nouns. For example:

  • He likes brown bread (uncountable noun)
  • He loves fast cars (plural noun)

We use 'a' before words that start with a consonant or consonant sound. For example:

  • a government
  • a bird
  • a book
  • a horse
  • a language
  • a library
  • a university - /ˌjuːnɪˈvɜː(r)səti/
  • a European - /ˌjʊərəˈpiːən/

We use 'an' before words that start with a vowel or vowel sound. For example:

  • an apple
  • an engine
  • an English lesson
  • an exam
  • an honour - /ˈɒnə(r)/
  • an hour - /ˈaʊə(r)/

Where the noun is modified by an adjective, you use 'a' or 'an' depending on whether the adjective starts with a consonant or consonant sound, or a vowel or vowel sound.

For example:

  • a red car
  • a terrible accident
  • a difficult exam
  • an exciting party
  • an interesting job
  • an action-packed football match

Definite article: 'the'

Now, let’s have a look at definite article ‘the’.

'the' is used to modify specific nouns when it’s clear what is being referred to. It can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns.

For example:

  1. “On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to step on the moon.” We only have one moon, so we know which specific moon is being referred to here.
  2. “The English course for beginners starts next Tuesday.” A specific English course starts next Tuesday.
  3. “They were lost in the Sahara Desert for four days.” There is only one Sahara Desert.
  4. “We went on a boat trip on the Danube.” There is only one Danube river.
  5. “She sailed solo across the Atlantic.”
  6. “Can you pass me the hammer and nails, please?”

Examples of the definite article used with uncountable nouns.

  1. “Who's used all the bread?”
  2. “The weather has been gorgeous all weekend.”
  3. “The scenery around our hotel was amazing.”
  4. "I don’t have the courage to do a parachute jump.”

Incidentally, according to the Oxford English Corpus, 'the' also happens to be the word that occurs most frequently in written English.

Omission of Articles

Some nouns don't take an article before them. For example, we do not use an article when referring to:

  • the names of sports: e.g. hockey, football, tennis, ice-skating, swimming.
  • academic subjects: e.g. geography, history, English literature, physics.
  • the names of languages and nationalities: e.g. Italian, Chinese, English, French, Mandarin, Polish, Catalan.

Note: If you are referring to the population of a country or nation, an article is used. For example: The French, The Chinese. "The French are well known for their excellent food."

  • the names of countries, territories or islands: e.g. Holland, Peru, Latvia, New Zealand, Easter Island.

Note: There are some exceptions to this. For example, the US/the United States, the Caribbean, the Philippines, the Netherlands.

  • the names of continents: e.g. Africa, Asia, Europe.
  • the names of cities or towns: e.g. London, Moscow, Sydney, Athens.

Some languages have complex systems of articles relating to gender, person, number, and case, whereas other languages have no definite or indefinite articles at all.

The English language only has 'a/an' and 'the' to learn and remember and so, in theory, they should be straightforward to learn and use. Nevertheless, remembering their correct use and non-use can still be quite difficult for learners of English.

Remember…

We use the indefinite article 'a/an' to talk about something that is not specific or definite.

We use the definite article ‘the’ to talk about something specific.

Indefinite: “I’m going to eat an apple.” This could be any apple, we don’t know which one.

Definite: “I’m going to eat the apple.” We do know which apple I’m going to eat.

If you can remember these two rules, you’re off to a very good start mastering English articles 'a/an' and 'the'.