How to use articles "a", "an" and "the"

Published on Aug 29, 2020

I've been learning Grammar for a long time and one of the most challenging topics for me is articles. So I decided to read more stuff and write a short guide for me and share it here (because that's what I was writing today).

In almost any English sentence you can find articles as "a", "an" or "the". They help to distinguish between singular and plural or indicate definite and indefinite nouns. Correct usage of articles is important because their misuse can change the meaning of a sentence and cause misunderstanding. But this topic hard to master for non-native speakers because not every language has articles concept. In this short guide, we'll go over the main rules on how to use articles.

Definite and indefinite articles let the reader know who or what you are talking about. Articles "a", "an" and "the" can be used with nouns and noun phrases. We use a definite article "the" before singular and plural nouns for nouns that point on a specific object. This object must be familiar both to the reader.  In cases when an object is unknown, unspecified or mentioned for the first time, we should use indefinite articles "a" and "an".  For example, "I installed a new game. The game is quite good". "The" was used in the second sentence because the game was already specified in the first sentence. It is important to remember, that "A" is used before a noun that starts with a consonant, and "an" in case it starts with a vowel. For example, "He is an analyst", "She is a scientist".

"A"/"an" are used with countable nouns (a glass of water) but not with uncountable nouns such as "scissors" or "milk". In case of countable nouns, if you refer for more than one object, use no article with plural nouns (two books). In case you refer to the whole group, use "the".  Don't use articles speaking about things in general. For example:

- Countable single. She has a dog.

- Countable plural. She has two dogs.

- The whole group. He talked with the teachers.

- Uncountable, any object. She bought milk.

- Uncountable, specific. Pass me the milk, please.

- Speaking in general. I like Turkish coffee.

There are many cases when you shouldn't use articles. They are not used with meals, organisations and transport. For example, "I travel to work by bus" or "I go to university". When we write "university" meaning a building or specific place, we should use an article. Articles are also not used with geographical objects, except when we speak about a collection of other objects or oceans and seas. For example, "the United Kingdom", "the Atlantic ocean". You also shouldn't use articles:

- before possessive pronouns, such as "my", "its", "her",

- before mass nouns or abstract concepts like "love" or "wisdom",

- before academic subjects, sports or real nouns - "statistics", "football", "Harry Potter",

- before languages or nationalities, for example, "English", "Russian", but "the English", "the Russians" referring to a group of people.

As you can see, there are many rules and exception from these rules. Correct usage of articles will help you to convey your thoughts better and avoid misunderstanding. The best way to master it is to practice more reading and writing.