If English isn’t your first language, knowing when to use an article before a noun can be confusing. It can also be tricky to know which article to use. To help explain, in this post we’re looking at the definite (i.e., “the”) and indefinite (i.e., “a” and “an”) articles.
The Definite Article (The)
As the name “definite” suggests, we use the definite article (“the”) when referring to a particular person or object. This could be because:
There is only one of something (e.g., “the President of the U.S.A.”)
We’re using a superlative (e.g., “the cutest puppy”)
“The” is also useful when referring to something the reader or listener is already familiar with. This might be because we’ve already mentioned or implied what it is:
I read a book last week, but the story wasn’t great.
In this example, we use “the” in the second part of the sentence because it clearly refers back to the book mentioned in the first part.
Similarly, we can use “the” when the context makes it clear what we’re discussing. For instance, if we say we’re “going to the gym,” this obviously implies a specific gym (i.e., the local one), not just any of the many gyms that might be available.
We also use “the” when referring abstractly to every example of something with a singular noun. For instance, while we could use the plural “cats” in the sentence:
Cats are furry animals.
We could also say the same thing using the singular noun “cat” if we add “the” in front:
The cat is a furry animal.
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In this case, “the cat” refers to the species “cat” in general, not to a specific cat.
Indefinite Articles (A and An)
Also aptly named, indefinite articles are used for referring to something when it is one of many possible examples or one of a generic type. In the example above, for instance, saying that we read “a book” shows that it was one of many possible books we could have read.
Likewise, if we were to say we needed “a plumber,” we’d be asking for any plumber who is available, not one specific plumber.
Whether to use “a” or “an,” meanwhile, depends on the sound at the beginning of the next word:
If it starts with a consonant sound, use “a” (e.g., “a puppy”).
If it begins with a vowel sound, you should use “an” (e.g., “an egg”).
This isn’t always a matter of spelling, since some words that start with a consonant begin with a vowel sound (e.g., “an hour”), and some words that start with a vowel actually begin with a consonant sound (e.g., “a universal truth”).
No Article Required
Finally, keep in mind that some nouns don’t require an article in some situations. This is known as the “zero article.” Common examples include:
Mass nouns and plural nouns used abstractly (e.g., “Wine is delicious”)
Some forms of transport or delivery (e.g., “It was sent by mail”)
Most countries and languages (e.g., “I went to China”)
The zero article can be confusing, since it depends on how a word is used. For instance, while we might say we saw something “on television” (no article) when referring to television as a medium, we’d say “turn on the television” if referring to the TV set in our living room.
Likewise, place names can be tricky, since some require “the” (e.g., “the University of Chicago”) and others don’t (e.g., “Colombia University”).
Ultimately, knowing when articles are required is a matter of practice. The important thing is, therefore, to check when you’re not sure (getting your work proofread is also a good idea).