If your mother tongue has completely different rules concerning the articles, or has no articles at all, then I’m sure this is a question you have asked yourself more than once. Do I really need to include every single “a”, “an” and “the” in each of my sentences? How can such tiny words really matter? If other languages get along without articles, are they really necessary in English?
Dynamite comes in small packages!
I was planning on saving the answer to this question until the conclusion of this post, but I can’t wait. The answer is YES! YES, you DO need to use articles! You may be able to convey a general message without them, but omitting the articles will unfortunately give the impression that your English language skills are poor. The harsh truth is that your English will sound very basic (or as my primary school teacher used to say, “like caveman language”) if you don’t make at least some effort to get the articles right.
How close are you to mastering those cute, little and confusing articles?
What are articles?
The articles in English are the, a and an. The article the is called a definite article, and the articles a and an are indefinite articles. There is no grammatical difference between the articles ‘a’ and ‘an’, so you can consider them one type of article grammatically.
The English Articles and How They Relate to Nouns
Before discussing the difference between the articles a, an and the, it is important to understand the different types of English nouns. We call a noun that we can count a countable noun. If we are unable to count the noun with a number, it is called an uncountable noun. This is a concept you will need to be familiar with when learning many areas of English grammar, not just when talking about the articles.
When do we use a and an?
When we say a noun is countable, this means it can be preceded by a, an or a number. If a noun has a regular plural form, it ends with the plural -s or -es. Take the countable noun “car” as an example. We can say a car or one car and two or more cars. When we mention a singular countable noun for the first time, we can do so by using either the article a or the article an. These both modify a singular countable noun and add clarity to the meaning of the noun.
Look at how the indefinite articles are used in the following examples:
I bought a car yesterday. (I am introducing the topic of a singular car.)
Would you like to hear a story? (You don’t know which story yet.)
I had a drink on the way home. (I had one drink. The type of drink is not important.)
If we want to talk about countable nouns in general, we take the plural -s without an article. Look at these examples of plural nouns:
Cars are expensive to maintain. (cars in general)
Cities are becoming more and more crowded. (in general)
I don’t like eggs. (It doesn’t matter which eggs. I hate them all!)
Be careful: the same rule applies for countable nouns with irregular plurals:
People like to travel in summer. (People is the plural of person)
Children don’t like eating vegetables. (children is the plural of child)
Sheep live on farms. (one sheep / two sheep)
Notice that irregular plurals take a plural verb form, even though they do not end with an s.
To understand the articles, you must also know the difference between countable and uncountable nouns
Now that we’ve discussed countable nouns, it’s time to focus on how articles relate to uncountable nouns. An uncountable noun is usually a general concept, an abstract idea or a substance and cannot be referred to with a number or the plural -s. An uncountable noun takes either no article or a determiner such as some, any or a lot of.
Be careful: uncountable nouns don’t take the indefinite articles (a or an) or plural -s / -s !
Keep in mind that several uncountable nouns in English are countable in other languages. If you translate the following uncountable nouns into your language, are they countable or uncountable?
If you need to use the above vocabulary in the singular or plural form, then you will have to use terms of measurement, such as “a piece of …/ 2 pieces of…” or “a package of…/ 2 packages of …” or take an alternative word that is countable:
Look uncountable nouns are expressed in the following examples:
Can I give you some advice?
Can I give you two pieces of advice?
I can give you an advice or two advices
I drank some water.
I drank a glass of water.
I drank 3 waters.
My uncle has a lot of money.
My uncle has a million dollars.
My uncle has a money/ moneys.
I need to buy some furniture
I need to buy 3 chairs.
I need to buy 5 furnitures
What is the difference between a and an?
Whether you use “a” or “an” does not depend on spelling!
One misconception I would like to clarify about when to use the article an is that this article should be used if the following noun or adjective starts with a vowel. This is often the case, but it is not actually the rule. The use of a or an actually depends on the PRONUNCIATION of the first syllable of the following noun or adjective, and not on the letter it begins with.
Let’s look at these examples:
An honest man (the ‘h’ is silent)
A happy child (the ‘h’ is pronounced)
An hour (the ‘h’ is silent)
A hat (the ‘h’ is pronounced)
An umbrella ( initial vowel sound /ʌ/)
A university (initial consonant sound /j/)
Your choice of indefinite article depends on whether or not you pronounce the following word with an initial vowel sound or a consonant sound. Sometimes this difference between vowel sound and consonant sound is not so clear cut. We can notice this in the example of the word “historic”, which can take either the ‘an’ or ‘a’, depending on the speaker’s preference.
Some speakers say “a historic event”
Others say “an historic event”.
Although the word “historic” begins with a consonant letter (h) and is pronounced with a consonant sound, it is not easy to accentuate the “h” sound in speech. This is especially true for the word ‘historic’ since the word stress lies on the second syllable (his-TOR-ic), making it even more difficult for a speaker to pronounce the initial ‘h’ sound clearly. For this reason, the first syllable is closer to a vowel sound and some speakers utilize the indefinite article “an” before the word.
The above example is one where a person’s region and personal preference play a role. While most English speakers indeed say “a historic” ,in both the US and the UK, enough people say “an historic” to make both usages correct.
What is a definite article and why do we need it?
Now it’s time to give the definite article the our attention. We use the article “the” when we are writing or speaking about a specific object or something that has already been mentioned. For example, imagine I tell you that I have just read a good book. The first time I mention the book I refer to it as “a book”. Once I have mentioned the book, I can continue to refer to it as “the book”.
Look how we change the article from a to the in the following examples.
I read a book last month. (New topic)
The book took place 80 years ago. (You know which book I am referring to)
A 12 year old girl was the main character of the book. (First mention of the girl)
The girl’s best friend was a cat. (You know which girl I mean – she’s the main character)
We can also use the definite article when it is clear from the situation which thing we are referring to. For example, if my daughter says, “I don’t understand this grammar. I will ask the teacher in class tomorrow.” I know from the context that she means her English teacher.
We use the definite article ‘the‘ for nouns when there is only one of them:
The moon (meaning the earth’s moon)
The main post office
The city center
We use the with ordinals and superlatives
The hundredth anniversary
The twentieth century
The best cake I have ever eaten
The funniest joke I have told
The safest way to travel
We use the definite article to refer to public offices, buildings or institutions, such as the bank, the post office, the library or the hospital. Here are some more examples of places that usually take the definite article:
The post office
The dry cleaner’s
We say “I have to go to the post office”, even if we haven’t mentioned the post office yet.
However, if we use the above words with the indefinite article, it has a similar meaning to “any” and relays that which one specifically is not important. For example, if you tell me you live in a small town, I might ask, “Is there a post office in your town?” In this case, I am wondering if any post office exists in your town.
We also use the definite article for professions that we frequent:
The tax adviser
I have a toothache. I have to make an appointment to see the dentist!
We use the definite article “the” with names including Republic, Kingdom or States, etc. in the name:
The United Kingdom
The United Arab Emirates
The Dominican Republic
The United States
When talking about families, we take the definite article ‘the‘
Geographical locations take the article ‘the’
Groups of islands
The Philippines, the Canaries, the Bahamas, the Maldives, the Seychelles
The Himalayas, the Rockies, the Andes, the Alps
The Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Baltic Sea, the Caspian, the Mediterranean
The Ganges, the Danube, the Mississippi, the Rio Grande, the Volga, the Seine
We also use the + adjective to talk about groups of people,
The poor, the elite, the wealthy, the disabled, the homeless, the elderly, the sick, the Spanish, the French, the lonely
We use the + singular noun to talk about types of animals, machines or instruments:
The Siberian Tiger is endangered.
I would like to play the piano.
The smartphone was the greatest invention in my lifetime.
The lightbulb was invented in 1879.
A few more article rules to memorize:
The following list contains words that generally do not take an article:
When are we having dinner tonight?
Breakfast is at 8 0’clock
When do you eat lunch?
Room #12 (with any room number)
Page 27 (with any page number)
I am staying in room 54.
Please turn to page 15.
Proper nouns, place names and titles do not take an article either:
A proper noun is a name or title that is written with a capital letter, like Prime Minister or President. If it is written with a small letter, like ‘president’, then it is a common noun can take an article.
The environmentalist met with President Biden at the White House.
President Biden met with the presidents of five European countries.
More examples of proper nouns:
(The Hague, the Netherlands, the Philippines and the Vatican are exceptions )
More interesting article facts
The definite article with acronyms and initialisms:
If the acronym is pronounced like a name, or proper noun, then we do not use an article:
My sister works for UNICEF.
We visited NASA on our trip to Washington.
There are 30 members of NATO.
An initialism is similar to an acronym, except that the individual letters are spelled out. If the name of an institution or organization is pronounced by saying the letters individually, then we use the definite article:
I just got hired by the U.N.
The case is being investigated by the F.B.I.
The C.I.A. was involved in the cover up.
Why do we need articles?
#1 The definite article tells the listener or reader that you are referring to a topic they already know about.
My partner’s mother tongue is a Slavic language that does not use articles. Although his English is quite good (thanks to me), the issue of articles is constantly causing us to have miscommunications. For example, he may start a sentence with, “the neighbor helped my mom with her accounts yesterday.” Because he used the definite article “the”, my brain is asking me “which man? When did he tell me about a man? Am I supposed to know the man he’s talking about?”
How are articles important for smooth conversation?
Even though I am fully aware that the articles are difficult for him, it confuses my brain when he uses “the” to introduce the subject for the first time. On the other hand, If he were to say, “ The police helped my mother find her car,” This would sound completely normal because we use the definite article when referring to institutions or organizations.
#2 The article conveys whether you are speaking about something specific or the topic generally.
When we speak about a topic generally, we use either the “a” or “an” with singular nouns, or no article at all with plural nouns.
Look at the following examples for comparison:
I am thinking of buying a car next month. ( I haven’t picked it out yet and don’t have a specific one in mind)
I’m late because the car broke down on the way here. (My car)
If I tell my colleague that work is stressful, she will most likely agree that work, in general, is stressful. If I tell her that the work is stressful, she will assume I mean specific work, perhaps the tasks my boss assigned me or a project I am working on at the moment.
We cannot use the indefinite article with plurals, because indefinite articles reflect a singular noun. We can, however, use the definite article with plural nouns if the noun is specific:
The cars were driving so fast that they almost ran off the road. (Cars I have mentioned before)
The children were cleaning up when I got home. (My children / our children )
Could you give me 20 dollars? (I’ll take any 20 dollars)
Could you give me the 20 dollars? (The 20 dollars that you owe me!)
Common article mistakes and why they matter!
Using the article “an” when the first syllable is written with a vowel but not pronounced with a vowel sound. Remember: the a versus an rule depends on the PRONUNCIATION of the following word and not on the spelling!
X That is an unique painting – WRONG (the initial syllable of “unique” is pronounced /j:/
That is a unique painting – RIGHT
Using the article “an” when there is an adjective separating the article and the noun that begins with a vowel sound.
X That is an big elephant! WRONG (the article depends on the word directly following it, regardless of whether it is a noun, adjective or adverb.)
That is a big elephant! RIGHT! (We use “a” because the adjective “big” begins with a consonant.)
How to learn them
Memorizing articles may not sound like the most exciting activity to tackle. Fortunately, I have some ideas for you to learn them gradually and with little effort. This first idea is something that anyone can do, and all you need is a text in English.
Fill in the gaps article activity
First copy a page from a news article or other text on the internet and paste it onto a Word document. Then, delete every “the”, “an” and “a” in the text and leave a blank in its place. The blanks should all be the same size so you don’t get a hint about the size of the article. Now print out the text and try to fill in the blanks with the correct articles. When you’re all done, you can compare your text with the original and see how well you did.
My second suggestion is to drill your article knowledge using my relevant Quizlet sets.
Practice makes perfect!
Articles play an important role in the English language. They signal to your reader or listener whether the subject is new or something you have already introduced. Using the wrong article may not alter the meaning of the sentence drastically, but because articles are such a basic part of English grammar, leaving them out or making a lot of mistakes with the articles could give the impression that you don’t know very basic grammar rules. Although the articles are little words, they come up in nearly every English sentence and mastering them will make you sound more eloquent and articulate when you speak or write.