Let’s say you have this sentence: “I need to buy ___ envelope for my wife’s birthday card.” What word do you think should go in the blank? If you chose an, you’re right! But why is an the correct word? Why can’t we use the, a, or just leave it blank?
If you ask these questions often, then this post is for you! We’ll provide a simple guide to the wonderful world of articles in English. We’ll talk about article usage and the differences between definite and indefinite articles.
What Are Articles?
Maybe you already know what articles are, and “yay!” if you do. Articles are words that are used before nouns to define them as specific or unspecific. Let’s look at the following examples:
After the long day, the cup of tea tasted really good.
By using the article the, we’ve shown that it was one specific long day and that one specific cup of tea tasted good.
After a long day, a cup of tea tastes really good.
We use a in this example to make a general statement, implying that any cup of tea would taste good after any long day.
There are two types of articles in English: definite (the) and indefinite (a/an). We’ll go over them in the following paragraphs.
Definite Article (The)
A definite article limits the meaning of a noun to one particular thing.
For example, your friend could ask, “Are you going to the beer festival this weekend?” The definite article tells you that your friend is referring to a specific beer festival that both of you know about.
We can use the definite article with singular, plural, or countable nouns. Here are some examples of using the definite article in context:
Please give me the blue hammer; the red one is too small.
Please give me the large nail; it’s the only one strong enough to hold this painting.
Indefinite Article (A/An)
The two indefinite articles are a and an. The a is used when it precedes a word that begins with a consonant, while an precedes a word that begins with a vowel. Indefinite articles indicate that a noun refers to a general idea.
For example, you might ask a friend, “Should I bring a gift to the party?”
In this case, you’re not asking about a specific type of gift.
Your friend answers, “It’s up to you. I’m going to bring an apple strudel.” Your friend is not referring to a specific apple strudel. Indefinite articles only appear with singular nouns. Here are a few examples:
Please bring a gift; any gift will do.
Please bring me an autobiography; any autobiography will do.
There are a few exceptions to using a or an. For example, you wouldn’t be able to use a with a word that begins with a silent “h”. Let’s take the word honest. Although it begins with a consonant, the “h” is silent when pronounced. Therefore, we use an instead of a. Another example would be united. The “u” is pronounced yoo, so we’d use a instead of an. Consider these examples:
However, you often need an article before an initialism when using it as either a noun or a modifier.
An FBI agent left the USA for a special mission in France.
It’s important to use articles correctly to improve your writing and speaking skills. You should know the rules regarding articles with grammar points, such as adjectives and pronouns. Moreover, there are some specific instances where articles aren’t needed, such as proper nouns, generalizations, and certain phrases.
Articles Before an Adjective
An article sometimes modifies a noun, which has also been modified by an adjective. If the article is indefinite, you would need to choose a or an based on the first letter of the word that follows it. Let’s consider these examples:
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Mark will bring a small gift to Macy’s wedding.
Our teacher told us an amusing story today at school.
Indefinite Articles With Uncountable Nouns
You should never use indefinite articles with uncountable nouns. You should use words, such as some, to modify these nouns. Here’s an example:
Please give me some juice.
Please give me a juice.
Articles With Pronouns
As a rule, articles shouldn’t be used with possessive pronouns (his, her, my, our, its, and their). Let’s study these examples:
Why are you reading the my newspaper?
Why are you reading the newspaper?
Why are you reading my newspaper?
The and my shouldn’t be used together, as they both modify the same noun. Instead, you should use one or the other depending on the intended meaning.
Rules and Exceptions
You should be aware of some specific rules and exceptions when using articles. It’s important to practice and become familiar with article usage to improve your grammar skills.
Nouns Without Articles
In some cases, articles are not used before certain nouns. The article is implied but not actually present. This implied article is often called a “zero article”. It’s omitted before nouns that refer to abstract ideas. Consider this example:
Let’s go out for breakfast today.
Let’s go out for a breakfast today.
Many languages and nationalities are also not preceded by articles. Examples include:
I learned Spanish in Argentina.
I learned the Spanish in Argentina.
Additionally, sports and academics don’t require articles. Here’s an example:
● Plural nouns representing a group (dogs, cats, books)
It’s important to note that the usage of articles in English grammar might not be the same as in other languages. Therefore, getting the hang of it may require practice and attention. If you’d like some practice with English articles, try this cool exercise. For visual learners, we recommend this video using definite and indefinite articles. It even touches on zero articles!
1. Can you give some examples of proper nouns that don’t require an article?
You don’t need an article for singular proper nouns. The names of cities, countries, towns, and street names exemplify this rule. The only exception with countries is The Gambia (a country in Western Africa).
2. What are the rules for using articles with countries, languages, and nationalities?
Articles aren’t used with many languages and nationalities. For example, a country with a single or merged name (except The Gambia) doesn’t require articles, while plural names (The Philippines, The Bahamas) do.
3. How can I check if I am using articles correctly in my writing?
As you write, ask yourself if the noun is countable or uncountable. Is the noun specific or unspecific? It’s also a good idea to read the passage aloud with the articles to verify that they are correct. For more grammar guidance, check out our Common ESL Writing Errors guide.
Of course, proofreading your writing can help with verifying correct article usage in English. If you’re currently working on a piece of writing, our team of experts at Proofed can ensure the correct usage of articles. They can also ensure correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Consider submitting a 500-word document for free today!