Articles are used to indicate whether a noun refers to a specific or a general item.
There are two types of articles, definite and indefinite.
However, in your choice about whether to use an article, or which one to use, you have four possible choices: ‘a‘, ‘an‘, ‘the‘ or ‘no article‘.
‘a’ and ‘an’ are Indefinite Articles and ‘the’ is known as the Definite Article.
For example, if I say, “Let’s read the book,” I mean a specific book. If I say, “Let’s read a book,” I mean any book rather than a specific book.
Uses of the Indefinite Articles – ‘a’ and ‘an’
‘a’ is used before a word beginning with a consonant, or a vowel with a consonant sound.
a man, a hen, a university (vowel with a consonant sound), a European (vowel with a consonant sound), a one-way street (vowel with a consonant sound), etc.
‘an’ is used before words beginning with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u) or words beginning with a mute ‘h’.
an apple, an island, an uncle, an egg, an onion, an hour (beginning with a mute ‘h’), etc.
‘an’ is used before individual letters spoken with a vowel sound.
an L-plate, an MP, an SOS, an ‘X’, etc.
Uses of a/an
Before a singular noun which is countable (i.e. of which there is more than one) when it is mentioned for the first time and represents no particular person or thing.
I need a visa.
They live in a flat.
He bought an ice-cream.
Before a singular countable noun which is used as an example of a class of things.
A car must be insured
All cars/Any car must be insured.
A child needs love
All children need/Any child needs love.
With a noun complement. This includes names of professions.
It was an earthquake.
She’ll be a dancer.
He is an actor.
In certain expressions of quantity.
a lot of a couple
a great many
a dozen (but one dozen is also possible)
a great deal of
With certain numbers.
Before half when half follows a whole number.
1 ½ kilos = one and a half kilos or a kilo and a half
But ½ kilo = half a kilo (no a before half)
Though a + half + noun is sometimes possible.
With 1/3, ¼, 1/5, etc. ‘a’ is usual.
a third, a quarter, etc., (But one is also possible).
In expressions of price, speed, ratio, etc.
5p a kilo
Re 1 a metre
sixty kilometre an hour
10 p a dozen four times a day (Here a/an = per)
In exclamations before singular, countable nouns.
Such a long queue!
What a pretty girl! But Such long queues!
What pretty girls! (Plural nouns, so no article).
‘a’ can be placed before Mr/Mrs/Miss + surname, if the speaker does not actually know.
a Mr Smith
a Mrs Smith
a Miss Smith
Note: ‘a man called Smith’ and implies that he is a stranger to the speaker. Mr Smith, without ‘a’, implies that the speaker knows Mr Smith or knows of his existence.
‘a/an’ and ‘one’ (adjectives and pronouns)
When counting or measuring time, distance, weight, etc. we can use either ‘a/an‘ or ‘one‘ for the singular.
£1 = a/one pound
£1,000,000 = a/one million pounds
But note that in:
The rent is £100 a week (‘a’ before ‘week’ is not replaceable by ‘one’).
In other types of statement ‘a/an‘ and ‘one‘ are not normally interchangeable, because one + noun normally means ‘one only/not more than one’ and a/an does not mean this.
A shotgun is no good. (It is the wrong sort of thing.)
One shotgun is no good. (I need two or three.)
‘one‘ is the pronoun equivalent of ‘a/an‘.
Did you get a ticket? — Yes, I managed to get one.
The plural of ‘one‘ used in this way is ‘some‘.
Did you get tickets? — Yes, I managed to get some.
‘a’ and ‘an’ are used with words ‘few’ and ‘little’ if they refer to a small number or a small amount. Words ‘few’ and ‘little’ without the articles means almost none.
We have little time to spare. (means almost no time)
We have a little time to spare. (means some time)
Few persons were present at the meeting. (means almost no one was present)
A few persons were present at the meeting. (means some were present)
Uses of the Definite Article – The
‘The‘ points out a particular person or thing or someone or something already referred to.
I saw the doctor. (means I saw some particular doctor)
The apple you ate was rotten.
Did you lock the car?
The books are expensive. (not all books are expensive, just the ones I’m talking about.)
Books are expensive. (All books are expensive.)
You should also use ‘the‘ when you have already mentioned the thing you are talking about.
She’s got two children; a girl and a boy.
The girl’s eight and the boy’s fourteen.
‘The‘ is used with names of gulfs, rivers, seas, oceans, groups of islands, and mountain ranges.
The Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the British Isles, the Alps, the Ganga, the North Pole, the equator, etc
‘The‘ is used before the names of things unique of their kind.
The sun, the sky, the ocean, the sea, the rain, the wind, the world, the earth, the Parliament, etc.
‘The‘ is used before the name of certain books.
The Quran, The Vedas, The Bible, The Puranas, The Ramayana, etc.
But we never say ‘The Valmiki’s Ramayana’. The is not used when the name of a book is mentioned along with the author’s name. So, ‘Valmiki’s Ramayana’ is correct.
‘The‘ is used before a plural common noun if it refers to a particular group among the class and not the whole class.
Drive away the cows from the field.
‘The‘ is used before a proper noun only when it is qualified by an adjective.
The great Rani of Jhansi.
The immortal Kalidas.
‘The‘ is used before the superlatives.
Rohit Sharma is the best batsman in the world today.
The best person should win.
‘The‘ is used before an adjective when the noun is understood.
The poor are always with us. (Here poor mean poor people, which is understood.)
The weak and the strong. (Here weak means weak people and strong means strong people.)
‘The‘ is used with ordinals.
He was the first student to finish his homework.
The second chapter of the book is very interesting.
Omission of the Articles – Rules with Examples
No article is used before a common noun when it refers to all the members of the class.
Man is mortal.
Fish has high protein content.
What kind of flower is it?
No article is used before the names of materials such as gold, stone, wine, iron, wheat, wood, cloth. etc.
Gold is a precious metal.
Wheat grows in Uttar Pardesh, Haryana, and Madhya Pradesh.
Iron is a useful metal.
Note: But it is correct to say:
An iron is a useful gadget.
Because here we are not talking about material iron, but the object which is used to make clothes smooth.
No article is used before proper nouns.
Delhi is the capital of India.
Newton was a great philosopher.
But consider the following examples where an article is used before a proper noun:
This man is a second Newton.
Mumbai is the Manchester of India.
Here Newton and Manchester is not used as a proper noun but a common noun.
No articles are used before a common noun used in its widest sense.
The Science has developed much in the past hundred years. (Incorrect)
Science has developed much in the past hundred years. (Correct).
No article is used before the noun following ‘Kind of’.
What kind ofa hobby is this? (Incorrect) What kind of hobby is this? (Correct)
No article is used before abstract nouns.
Wisdom is the gift of heaven.
Honesty is the best policy.
But consider the following examples where an article is used before an abstract noun:
The wisdom of Solomon is famous.
I cannot forget the kindness with which he treated me.
Here the article is used before the abstract noun as the abstract noun has been qualified by an adjective or adjectival clause.
No article is used before languages, subject of arts and science.
We are studying English.
Geometry is the toughest subject I have ever studied.
No article is used before words such as school, college, church, bed, table, hospital, market, prison, etc.
I went to school till last year.
I have never been to hospital.
But an article is used before these words when reference is made to a definite place.
No article is used before the name of relations like father, mother, aunt, uncle, etc.
Mother would like to see you.
But If someone else’s mother is being talked about then ‘the’ should be used.
The mother would like to see you. (someone else’s mother)
Article should not be used before positions that are held at one time by one person only.
Donald Trump was elected the president of the USA. (Incorrect)
Donald Trump was elected president of the USA. (Correct)
Please consider the following sentences.
I have a black and white cat.
I have a black and a white cat.
Here in sentence 1, I mean that I have one cat that is partly black and partly white. In sentence 2, I mean that I have two cats one is black and the other white.
Hence the rule is that when two or more adjectives qualify the same noun, the article is used before the first adjective only. But when they qualify different nouns, the article is used before each adjective separately.
Consider one more example:
The President and Chairman is absent.
The President and the Chairman are present.
Sentence 1 means that only one person is acting as president as well as chairman. Sentence 2 means that two different persons are acting as the President and the Chairman and both the persons are absent.