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The Definite and Indefinite Articles of English Grammar

Updated on March 10, 2015


Articles in English Language are among the most complicated and misused. Most often the overuse and misuse of articles cause grammatical errors. Nonetheless, most article errors are not severe. Articles will still give meaning to a sentence in spite of deleting them. However students should study the meaning and benefits of using appropriate articles in a sentence. Mistakes in articles can lower the grades and make one look unprofessional. It is frequently difficult to decide whether an English noun requires an article before it, and, if so, which article can be used.

While mistakes and errors in the use of articles are not precisely severe, they specify a lack of ability in English. The main things to consider when selecting an article are whether the noun is countable or not, and whether it is definite. By countable we mean if the noun can be made plural. Remember that the article is not strained or stressed, so don't listen for its full value!

As you know, there are two classes of articlesdefinite article (the) and indefinite article (a/an). The words ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’, present difficulties for most speakers as an added language. This is not unanticipated, since there is no equal structure in many languages, and those languages that do have articles do not inevitably use them in the similar way as English.

Tips in Using Definite and Indefinite Articles

  • When introducing a person or an entity or thing use indefinite articles (a, an) for the first time.
  • When you don’t expect the person who reads/listener to understand what you are talking about or who you’re talking about, use indefinite articles.
  • While referring to a person and thing that is repeatedly being mentioned use indefinite articles.
  • Use the definite article to mention about a person or object known to both the speaker and the reader.
  • When speaking in general don’t use any articles.
  • A countable noun which is singular needs to have an article or an additional determiner.
  • A plural noun can be used with an article or without an article.
  • No articles are used when we are speaking in all-purpose.

Note: A determiner can be a possessive (my, her), a demonstrative (this, that) or a quantifier (some, any, few etc.)

There will always be a question arising as to which article is to be used when. A countable noun should have an article if there is no other number or determiner. If the noun is plural, an article may not be essential. If the noun is singular and countable, then you will usually need the indefinite article. If the speaker or reader recognizes what you are mentioning, then you will usually need the definite article.

Consider the sentence below,

Jenny has a brown and white cat.

This sentence means that jenny has a cat which is partially white and partially brown. But if it’s said “Jenny has a brown and a white cat”, it means Jenny has two cats – one brown and a white. Therefore, when two adjectives meet the requirements of the same noun, then the article is used before the main noun. But when it mentions various nouns, conveyed or assumed, the article is used before every single adjective. Articles are not used before uncountable and abstract nouns.

Uncountable nouns take the article ‘the’ when used in a specific sense. Remember that the definite article “the” is not used before the names of countries, people, rivers, continents, meals, languages and cities. ‘The’ is used afore words when the mention is to the building or object rather than to the normal activity that goes on. The choice between ‘a’ and ‘an’ is determined by sound and not spellings. ‘An’ is used before words beginning with a vowel sound on the other hand ‘A’ is used before words beginning with a consonant sound.


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