Articles function like adjectives. They are words that are used to modify nouns and define them as being either specific or unspecific.
There are two articles in English:
- The definite article (the): signals the specific/particular nature of the noun.
- The indefinite article (a/an): signals the non-specific/non-particular nature of the noun.
Articles (a, an, the)
Rule # 1
Use a before consonant sounds (b, c, d...)
Use an before vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, u)
Use a before eu and before u when it sounds like the word ‘you’.
Use an before words that begin with a silent h.
a boy, a cat, a tree, a university (sounds like ‘you’), a European city (sounds like ‘you’), an umbrella, an engineer, an apple, an hour (au-er; silent h), a house (hard ‘h’)
Rule # 2
A and an are called indefinite articles. Use a or an to mention about a person or thing unknown to your listener.
The is called the definite article. Use the to mention a person or thing known to your listener.
- My brother has two cars: a Ford and a BMW. The Ford is quite old but the BWM is brand new.
Note. a is used first because this is the first mention of the car. Next, the is used because the car has already been mentioned.
- I planted some strawberries in my garden. The strawberries are sweet.
Note. Some is used first because this is the first mention of the strawberries. Next, the is used because the strawberries have already been mentioned.
- Can you open the door?
Note. The is used because if you are sitting in a room, you will know which door the speaker is referring to.
- The lady in the grey dress is my lecturer.
Note. The is used to refer to a specific person. Additional information about the person is provided so that the listener can identify which 'the' is being referred to.
- Where is the money I lent you last month?
Note. Referring specifically the money you lent last month.
Rule # 3
Use a or an only with single countable nouns
Countable nouns: e.g. an elephant, an onion, an hour, an interesting story
Uncountable nouns: water, milk, knowledge, sugar (no article is required)
Rule # 4
Use a or an to talk about nonspecific things or people
- Do you have a pen?
Note. I am referring to any pen.
- Do you have the pen that I gave you last week?
Note. I am referring to a specific pen.
- I want to buy a car.
Note. I haven't decided which car.
- I want to buy the Ford car we saw last week.
Note. I have decided which car.
Rule # 5
Use a or an to talk about the category or type of a person or thing
- My car is a 2008 BWM hatchback.
Note. a is used to refer to a type of car.
- You can use your desktop as a laptop monitor.
Note. The noun phrase “laptop monitor” says what type of thing your desktop can be used as.
- Joe's son is a kind boy.
Note. a is used to describe the type of boy.
- I would like to become a member of your football club.
Note. a is used to refer to a category you would like to belong to.
- She worked as a librarian for five years.
Note. a is used to refer to a type of category.
Rule # 6
No articles are used to generalise plurals or uncountable nouns.
Use a/an or the with a singular countable noun to mean every single one.
- a. Students should be kind to teachers.
Note. Referring to all students and teachers in general terms.
b. A student should be kind to his or her teachers.
Note. You are still referring to all students.
- a. Monkeys are very intelligent
Note. Referring to all monkeys in general terms.
b. The monkey is a very intelligent animal.
Note. You are still referring to all monkeys.
- Exercise is good for health.
Note. Exercise/health is uncountable. Here you can't say the exercise/the health because it's not a countable noun and you don't need an article when you talk about things in general.
- Education is very important in life
Note. Education/life is uncountable. Here you can't say the education/the life because it's not a countable noun and you don't need an article when you talk about things in general.
Rule # 7
Use a/an with prices, frequency, and speed.
Use a before hundred, thousand, and million.
Use a/an when talking about jobs.
Use the when referring to the act of playing an instrument.
It cost $2 a kilogram.
I drink about five glasses of tea a day.
I'm driving at sixty miles an hour.
A thousand days.
I’m a musician.
- Playing an instrument
I play the piano.
Rule # 8
Use no articles in these situations
- Proper nouns-names of people, places, holidays
Lisa, Joe, Siva, Lim
New Zealand, Japan, Australia
Christmas, Diwali, Thanksgiving
Note. the is part of the name of some countries e.g. we say 'the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines'.
- Names of languages, games
badminton, cricket, tennis
Spanish, French, Mandarin
- Fixed expression
at noon, on Sunday, at home, travel by train, to school, to work, on George Street, to bed
Note. You need an article for the following places e.g. 'the movies, the post office, the airport, the hospital, the doctor, the bus stop, the dentist'.
Rule # 9
Use the with groups of islands, large regions, deserts, seas, united countries, canals, mountain ranges, rivers,
the Sahara Desert
the United Arab Emirates
the Mekong River
the Red Sea
the African plains
the Panama Canal