How To Use Articles In English (A – An – The)

By | 2020-01-27T09:11:53-06:00 May 10th, 2018|

how to use definite and indefinite articles (a, an, the) in English

Learning how to use articles in English is hard. These little words (a, an, the) give so many of my clients so many problems.

Why is that?

Let’s look at how several languages handle ‘definite and indefinite
articles,’ as they are called.

Articles are related to gender.  Interestingly, in Old English (up to 1150 A.D.) English nouns had gender.  They were masculine, feminine, or neuter.  Luckily for us English speakers, English has done away with gender, except for people and some large pieces of machinery (like a ship, which is still sometimes called a ‘she’).

Other languages still have gender.

In Latin languages, the word ‘the’ is either masculine or feminine, indicating the gender of the noun. Italian, although only possessing two genders, has eleven variations of the word ‘the’.  German has three genders – masculine, feminine, and neuter, as does Greek.  The Chinese languages have no gender – the same word is used for ‘he,’ ‘she,’ and ‘it.’ Interestingly, Russian has three genders, but does not have a word for ‘the’ at all. Other Slavic languages also do not.  Japanese also does not have articles.

Here are a few rules, which may help you with articles, depending on if your native language has them or not.

Some of the below was adapted from Practical English Usage by Michael Swan. Oxford University Press, 2005.

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1.  RULE:  Use the article ‘THE’  before a noun if you are indicating a specific something that the listener knows:

For example:

I am seeing THE dentist today.  [The speaker knows you mean YOUR dentist]

Who moved THE chairs?  [The speaker knows you mean the chairs that were right there.]

Please hand me THE pepper.  [ The speaker knows you mean the pepper on the table.]

2.  RULE: Use the indefinite article “A/AN” if  the speaker doesn’t know which one you mean.

For example:

I need to drink a cup of coffee, or I will fall asleep.  [No specific cup is indicated.]

I need an envelope.  [No specific envelope]

Compare with:

I need the envelope over there.  [Specific envelope that the listener can see.]

There’s a bug in the bathroom.   [The listener doesn’t know which bug.]

Compare with:

Yikes!  See the bug crawling up the wall!  [ The listener knows which one the speaker means.]

3.  RULE:  Don’t use an article with a plural noun or an uncountable (mass) noun:

I need envelopes.

I am afraid of spiders.

I love milk.

4.  RULE:  Don’t use an article to talk about things in general, usually. (There are some exceptions, like everything else in English!)

Giraffes are very tall.

Gasoline is expensive now.

5.  RULE:  Don’t let single, countable nouns stand alone.  Use ‘my dog, this dog, that dog, the dog, any dog, either dog, every dog.’ But do not just say ‘dog’

My dog is very friendly. (Not ‘Dog is very friendly.’)

Every dog should be walked daily. (Not ‘Dog should be walked daily.’)

IF YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE DOES HAVE ARTICLES (e.g., French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek, etc..)

1. RULE: If you are talking about things in general, we don’t usually use ‘the’ with uncountable or plural nouns.

For example:

Death is inevitable.  (Not ‘The death is inevitable.”)
Life is difficult. (Not “The life is difficult.”)

My children love elephants.  (Not “My children love the elephants.” Unless, of course, you are referring to specific elephants you saw in the zoo yesterday.  Then, it would be acceptable to say, “My children loved the elephants.”)

2. RULE:  If you are speaking about jobs/professions, use a/an.

For example:

My brother is a doctor. (Not ‘My brother is doctor.’)

I want to be a mother (Not “I want to be mother.”)

3. RULE:  Use ‘the’ when what you are referring to is known to the listener (for singular, plural, or uncountable nouns).

For example:
I’m going to the store. (The listener knows which one).

I’m going to a store. (The listener doesn’t know which one you mean.)

Did she wash the clothes? (The listener knows which clothes.)

Did she wash clothes?  (The listener doesn’t know which clothes.)

Where is the coffee?  (The listener knows you are referring to the pot you made, etc…)

I don’t drink coffee.  (Any coffee no matter where it is.)

4. RULE:  If there is only ONE of something in THE whole world, use ‘the’.

For example:

The moon was so beautiful last night.

The sun has been covered by clouds for days now!

5. RULE:  Use ‘the’ for superlatives (because there is only one). OR for first, next, last, same, and only.

For Example:

Your boyfriend is the best.

She was the first woman to win that race!

I have the same dress.

6. RULE:  ‘The’ can mean the one that is very well-known.

For Example:

She is going out with Tiger Williams, the golfer.

The play was written by John Doe, the novelist.

7. RULE:  Do not use ‘the’ with possessives and demonstratives.

For Example:

He is my uncle.  (Not  “He is the my uncle.”)

I like this beer.  (Not “I like this the beer.”)

8. RULE:  Don’t use the with most singular proper nouns.  There are a few exceptions, though.

For Example:

John lives in Germany.  (Not “John lives in the Germany.”)


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RULE: Pronounce ‘the’ as ‘thuh’ if the noun following it begins with a consonant.


The dog was sitting next to the sofa.

RULE: Pronounce ‘the’ as ‘thee’ if the noun following it begins with a vowel.


The apple was rotten, so I threw it into the orange bag.
RULE: Use ‘a’ before a noun that begins with a consonant sound.


A bug was crawling on a wall.

RULE:  Use ‘an’ before a noun that begins with a vowel sound.


An hour was up before we knew it!  (Use ‘an’ here because the first sound is a vowel, even though the first letter is a consonant!)

RULE:  ‘A’ is usually pronounced ‘uh’ unless there is a hesitation by the speaker. It can then be pronounced ‘ay’ like the name of the letter ‘a’.


Hmm, let me see.  I think I want a ……. vanilla ice cream cone.

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