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Using Definite and Indefinite Articles

Updated on September 15, 2019
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Vincent Dublado is a freelance writer and a mass culture enthusiast who loves quizzes and trivia.

What is an article? An article is an adjective, so they also modify nouns.

Many non-native speakers ignore article usage in speech and writing, because they find it confusing, and articles have no equivalent in their native language. If you are a non-native speaker, you need to follow the syntactic rules of English, not of your native language.

English has two articles: the and a/an. We use the to refer to specific or particular nouns; a and an is used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. The is called the definite article and a/an the indefinite article.

  • Let's adopt the puppy. (I mean a specific puppy.)
  • Let's adopt a puppy. (Any puppy rather than a specific puppy.)

The is used to refer to a specific or particular member of a group.

  • I just kissed the most beautiful Colombian girl. (There are many beautiful Colombian girls, but only one particular girl is the most beautiful for me.)

A/an is used for non-specific or non-particular member of the group.

  • I would like to see a concert. (We're not talking about a specific concert. We're talking about any concert. I don't have a specific one in mind. Maybe you can suggest a good singer, but no Justin Bieber for me.)

Here's a more in-depth look at each article:

Indefinite Articles: A and An

A and an refers to any member of a group. For example:

  • My spinster daughter really wants a hubby for her seventieth birthday. (This refers to any hubby or husband. We don't know who would be willing to give his heart to this spinster.)
  • Somebody call an Avenger! (This refers to any of the Avengers. We don't need a specific Avenger. We need any member who can save the day.)
  • There is an apple pie in the fridge. (We're talking about a single, non-specific thing, in this case an apple pie. There are probably other baked goodies in the fridge, but there's only one apple pie we're talking about.)

However, using a or an depends on the sound that begins the next word.

We use a for singular nouns beginning with a consonant.

  • a school; a girl; a president; a dictator

We use an for singular nouns beginning with vowels.

  • an egg; an apple; an umbrella; an intellectual

We use a for singular nouns that starts with vowels that sound like consonants.

  • a unicorn (sounds like "yoo-ni-korn"); a university ("yoo-ni-ver-si-tee")

We use an for nouns starting with silent h.

  • You will be hanged in an hour.

We use a for nouns starting with a pronounced h.

  • a house; a hound; a horse

In every rule, there is usually an exception. The word "historical" can use either a or an.

Note that the above rules also apply to acronyms.

  • A UNICEF ambassador was sent to inspect the children's conditions.
  • The doctor told me to get an MRI.
  • An ICBM was launched for testing.

The indefinite article modifies the adjective that modifies a noun. The initial sound of the modifying adjective dictates what article to use.

  • a rotten apple
  • an eccentric billionaire

Indefinite articles are also used to indicate membership in a group.

  • I am a Jedi. (I am a member of an order of space knights known as Jedis.)
  • Aqakuktuq is an Inuit. (Aqakuktuq is a member of an indigenous people known as Inuit.)
  • Jebediah is a tech-savvy Amish. (Jebediah is a member of the group of people known as Amish.)

Definite Article: the

The definite article the is used before singular and plural nouns when the noun is specific or particular.

  • I unwillingly killed the grizzly bear that mauled me in the woods. (We're talking about a specific bear, the bear that mauled me.)
  • I was heartbroken listening to the mailman lamenting that he might lose his job because of emails. (Even if we don't know the mailman's name, it's still a particular mailman because he is the one who laments about losing his job.)
  • I bumped into the senator inside the brothel. (A very specific noun. He was probably the only politician in the brothel at that time.)

Count and Non-count Nouns

The can be used with non-count nouns.

  • I'll write my promissory note on the sand (specific sand where you will write).
  • We are live on the air (specific air or airwaves).

The can also be omitted.

  • I'll write my promissory note on sand (any sand).
  • We are live on air (any airwave transmission).

A/an can be used only with count nouns.

  • I need a shot of whiskey. (Shot is the small glass that makes whiskey countable.)
  • They stole a barrel of gunpowder. (Barrel is countable.)

As for geographical use, observe the rules below. Again, there is usually an exception for every rule.

DO NOT use the before:

Names of most countries/territories:

  • Colombia, Portugal, Argentina.

Countries known as states, republic, kingdom, federation use article.

  • the Netherlands, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, the United States

Names of streets, cities, towns, or states:

  • Wall Street, Hollywood Boulevard, Tokyo, Shediac, New York

Names of mountains:

  • Mount Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Fuji (Ranges or group of mountains like the Andes, the Scottish Highlands, or the Rockies use articles. The same goes for mountains with unusual names like the Matterhorn.)

Names of continents:

  • North America, Asia, Europe

Names of lakes and bays:

  • Lake Chaubunagungamaug, Lake Memphremagog (Seriously, these lakes exist! Now as an exception, the Great Lakes use an article, because it is known as a group.)

Names of islands:

  • James Bond Island (it's in Thailand), Easter Island, Key West (Island chains like the Hebrides, the Aleutians, or the Canary Islands use articles.)

DO USE the before:

Names of rivers, oceans, and seas:

  • the Nile, the Amazon, the Pacific, the Atlantic

Points on the globe:

  • the Equator, the North Pole

Geographical areas, deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas:

  • the Gobi Desert, the Sahara, the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, the West, the Black Forest, the Malay Peninsula

When can we omit articles?

Common types of nouns that don't take an article are:

Names of academic subjects:

  • linguistics, algebra, chemistry, history

Names of languages and nationalities:

  • Chinese, Mandarin, Korean, Hangul, Somali, Argentinian (If you are referring to the population of a country, use an article: The Japanese are among the most literate people in the world.)

Names of sports:

  • judo, polo, cricket, soccer, fencing


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