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Use of Articles - The, An & A

Updated on July 10, 2014
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Definite Article (The)

Articles are an important element in a sentence as they help to describe the noun in a clearer way. They modify nouns thereby they referred to as adjectives.

There are two types of adjectives: indefinite and definite articles

The is used to specify or to refer to a particular person, thing, event, place, animal or any other noun.

Example 1: The man who stole my cell phone rang away.

In the above example, the is used to refer to a particular person, in the above case, man. It is used to specify only one particular person who stole my cell phone and not any person.


The is normally used before a singular noun or plural nouns. Using the above example to change the sentence into plural, the sentence will look like these:

The men who stole my cell phone rang away.

This indicates specific people stole my cell phone. A group of people, maybe three or four who their gender is masculine stole my cell phone and not any other men stole my cell phone.

In plural, article the can be used with countable and non-countable nouns only. Examples of countable nouns are: chairs, boys, girls, cars, computers etc.

Example 2: Where are the chairs I bought?

Example 3: He poured the water on the floor.

In the case of non-countable nouns, it is not necessarily to use the article the.

Example 4: He poured water on the floor.

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Indefinite Articles (A/An)

The word definite shows something has a got a limit. However, indefinite means something has no limit. An/A are adjectives used to show the noun modified is indefinite, or to refer to anything, that is, generally.

Example 1: A boy stole my pen on the desk.

In the above example, I am referring generally to somebody whom I presume to be of the gender of boy who stole my pen. I am not sure which particular bot. If article the was used, it would refer to a specific whom I am sure or assume is the one.

Example 2:Can you call for me a teacher in the staffroom?

In the above example, I am asking you to call me any teacher in the staffroom, whomever you will find. If you happen to find one teacher there, call him. If you find several of them, call any. I haven’t asked you to a call a particular one. Also, this is the case when using indefinite article an.

In summary, when using definite article, we are talking about a specific or particular noun while when we use indefinite article we are not identifying a specific noun but generalizing, meaning any.


Rules for Using Article The

Article the should be used:

  • Before names of rivers, seas and oceans
  • In front of geographical areas e.g. the Middle East and points of the globe e.g. the South Pole.
  • Lastly, it is used before names of desserts, gulfs, peninsulas and forests e.g. the Black Forest, the Sub-Saharan Dessert, the Persian Gulf.

Article the should not be used:

  • Before names of continents. Don’t say: The Africa is the second-largest continent in the world.
  • In front of names of countries, cities and towns. It is incorrect to say: The capital city of India is the New Delhi nor say One day I will visit the America, my dream country.
  • Also, this applies to names of streets.
  • Do not use it before names of mountains, lakes and islands. The only time we use the in the case of mountains is when referring to ranges of mountains such as Andes. Don’t say: I climbed the Mt. Everest or I crossed the Lake Victoria.

Rules for Using Articles A/An

  • The article an is used in front of nouns whose sounds beginning at the start of the noun words are vowels. Example: hour and heir. In both words h is silent. Therefore, the first sound that is uttered in hour is a vowel, the same case with heir. One is supposed to say an heir, an hour. Others are: an elephant, an egg.
  • The article a is used in front of noun words beginning with a consonant sound. Examples: a boy, a chair, a car. Note this: a university. The first letter of university starts with u, however, when pronounced the first sound that is uttered is yu. It is incorrect to say an university. Another example is a unicycle.
  • Article an is used in front of acronyms even when the acronym starts with a consonant letter but the sound that is pronounced at the start of the acronym is a vowel. Example: An Ms Word.


Indefinite articles are used with singular countable nouns only. It is incorrect to say: a policemen or a milk.

Indefinite article is used for the first time in a sentence when mentioning a noun for the first time. In the next sentence, definite article is used to refer to the specific noun that was used in the previous sentence.

Example 1: A boy was hit by a car. The boy died on the spot.

Example 2: A man was seen entering Jane’s house but I later found out the man was her husband.

When plural nouns are mentioned for the first time, there is no need of using article the which in this case is referred as a determiner.

Example 3: I found police officers at the school’s gate this morning but I learned later they were part of security arrangement for the visiting Deputy President.

In the following cases no article is needed:

  • Names of sports: It’s incorrect to say: the volleyball.
  • Names of nationalities and languages except when you are referring to the population in the country. Example: It is incorrect to say: The Swahili language is spoken in East Africa. However, you can say: the Swahili people in East Africa are kind and honest.
  • Mathematics, physics, chemistry and other academic subjects. It is wrong to say: My favorite subject is the English


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