Articles are used to indicate whether a noun refers to a specific or a general item. The rules for using articles in English are quite complex, so for students whose first language is not English, when to use an article, and which article to use can cause problems.
What is an article?
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: the, a, an, or no article. ‘a’ and ‘an’ are INDEFINITE ARTICLES ‘the’ is known as the DEFINITE ARTICLE.
Indefinite articles – a is used before a word beginning with a consonant, or a vowel with a consonant sound:
a one-way street
The form an is used before words beginning with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u) or words beginning with a mute h:
or individual letters spoken with a vowel sound:
a/an is the same for all genders:
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:
a hundred a thousand
Before half when half follows a whole number;
1 ½ kilos = one and a half kilos or
a kilo and a half But ½ kg = 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 kilometres 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:
a Mr Smith
a Mrs Smith
a Miss Smith
a Mr 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.
Omission of a/an
a/an is omitted:
Before plural nouns: a/an has no plural form. So the plural of a dog is dogs, and of an egg is eggs.
Before uncountable nouns: Before names of meals, except when these are preceded by an adjective: We have breakfast at eight. He gave us a good breakfast. The article is also used when it is a special meal given to celebrate something or in someone’s honour: I was invited to dinner (at their house, in the ordinary way) but I was invited to a dinner given to welcome the new ambassador.
a/an and one (adjective)
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
the 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.)
Special uses of One
one (adjective/pronoun) used with another/others:
One (boy) wanted to read, another /others wanted to watch TV.
One day he wanted his lunch early, another day he wanted it late.
one can be used before day/week/month/year/summer/winter etc. or before the name of the day or month to denote a particular time when something happened:
One night there was a terrible storm.
One winter the snow fell early.
One day a telegram arrived.
one day can also be used to mean ‘at some future date’:
One day you’ll be sorry you treated him so badly. (Some day would also be possible.)
a/an and one (pronoun)
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 little/a few and little/few
A a little/little (adjectives) are used before uncountable nouns:
a little salt/little salt
a few/few (adjectives) are used before plural nouns:
a few people/few people
All four forms can also be used as pronouns, either alone or with of:
Sugar? — A little, please.
Only a few of these are any good.
a little, a few (adjectives and pronouns)
a little is a small amount, or what the speaker considers a small amount, a few is a small number, or what the speaker considers a small number. only placed before a little/a few emphasises that the number or amount really is small in the speaker’s opinion:
Only a few of our customers have accounts.
But quite placed before a few increases the number considerably:
I have quite a few books on art. (quite a lot of books)
little and few (adjectives and pronouns)
little and few denote scarcity or lack and have almost the force of a negative:
There was little time for consultation.
Little is known about the side-effects of this drug.
Few towns have such splendid trees.
This use of little and few is mainly confined to written English (probably because in conversation little and few might easily be mistaken for a little/a few). In conversation, therefore, little and few are normally replaced by hardly any. A negative verb + much/many is also possible:
We saw little = We saw hardly anything/We didn’t see much.
Tourists come here but few stay overnight = Tourists come here but hardly any stay overnight.
But little and few can be used more freely when they are qualified by so, very, too. extremely, comparatively, relatively etc. fewer (comparative) can also be used more freely.
I’m unwilling to try a drug I know so little about.
They have too many technicians, we have too few.
There are fewer butterflies every year.
a little/little (adverbs)
a little can be used:
(1) with verbs:
It rained a little during the night.
They grumbled a little about having to wait.
(2) with ‘unfavourable’ adjectives and adverbs:
a little anxious a little unwillingly
a little annoyed a little impatiently
(3) with comparative adjectives or adverbs:
The paper should be a little thicker.
Can’t you walk a little faster?
rather could replace a little in (2) and can also be used before comparatives, though a little is more usual. In colloquial English a bit could be used instead of a little in all the above examples. little is used chiefly with better or more in fairly formal style:
His second suggestion was little (= not much) better than his first.
He was little (= not much) more than a child when his father died.
Definite Article – the
You use the when you know that the listener knows or can work out what particular person/thing you are talking about. For example:
The apple you ate was rotten.
Did you lock the car?
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.
We use the to talk about geographical points on the globe.
the North Pole,
We use the to talk about rivers, oceans and seas
the English channel
We also use the before certain nouns when we know there is only one of a particular thing.
the Parliament etc..
However if you want to describe a particular instance of these you should use a/an.
I could hear the wind. / There’s a cold wind blowing.
What are your plans for the future? / She has a promising future ahead of her.
The is also used to say that a particular person or thing being mentioned is the best, most famous, etc. In this use, ‘the’ is usually given strong pronunciation:
Tajmahal is the place to go.
You don’t mean you met the Laloo Prasad, do you?
Note – The doesn’t mean all:
The books are expensive. = (Not all books are expensive, just the ones I’m talking about.)
Books are expensive. = (All books are expensive.)
the with names of people has a very limited use. the + plural surname can be used to mean ‘the . . . family’:
the Smiths = Mr and Mrs Smith (and children)
the + singular name + clause/phrase can be used to distinguish one person from another of the same name:
We have two Mr Smiths. Which do you want? — I want the Mr Smith who signed this letter.
Omission of the
The definite article is not used:
Before names of places except as shown above, or before names of people. Before abstract nouns except when they are used in a particular sense;
Men fear death but The death a/the Prime Minister left his party without a leader.
After a noun in the possessive case, or a possessive adjective:
the boy’s uncle = the uncle of the boy It is my (blue) book = The (blue) book is mine.
Before names of meals:
The Scots have porridge/or breakfast but The wedding breakfast was held in her/other’s house.
Before names of games:
He plays golf.
Before parts of the body and articles of clothing, as these normally prefer a possessive adjective:
Raise your right hand. fie took off his coat.
But notice that sentences of the type:
She seized the child’s collar.
I patted his shoulder.
The brick hit John’s face. could be expressed:
She seized the child by the collar.
I patted him on the shoulder.
The brick hit John in the face.
Similarly in the passive:
He was hit on the head.
He was cut in the hand.
Note that in some European languages the definite article is used before indefinite plural nouns but that in English the is never used in this way:
Women are expected to like babies, (i.e. women in general)
Big hotels all over the world are very much the same.
If we put the before women in the first example, it would mean that we were referring to a particular group of women. nature, where it means the spirit creating and motivating the world of plants and animals etc., is used without the:
If you interfere with nature you will suffer for it.
Omission of the before home, before church, hospital, prison, school etc. and before work, sea and town A home
When home is used alone, i.e. is not preceded or followed by a descriptive word or phrase, the is omitted:
He is at home.
home used alone can be placed directly after a verb of motion, i.e. it can be treated as an adverb:
He went home.
I arrived home after dark.
But when home is preceded or followed by a descriptive word or phrase it is treated like any other noun:
They went to their new home.
We arrived at the bride’s home.
For some years this was the home of your queen. A mud hut was the only home he had ever known.
the is not used before the nouns listed above when these places are visited or used for their primary purpose. We go:
to bed to sleep or as invalids to hospital as patients
to church to pray to prison as prisoners
to court as litigants etc.
to school/college/university to study
Similarly we can be:
in bed, sleeping or resting in hospital as patients
at church as worshippers
at school etc. as students
in court as witnesses etc.
We can be/get back (or be/get home) from school/college/university.
We can leave school, leave hospital, be released from prison.
When these places are visited or used for other reasons the is necessary:
I went to the church to see the stained glass.
He goes to the prison sometimes to give lectures.
We go to sea as sailors. To be at sea = to be on a voyage (as passengers or crew). But
to go to or be at the sea = to go to or be at the seaside.
We can also live by/near the sea.
work and office
work (= place of work) is used without the:
He’s on his way to work. He is at work.
He isn’t back from work yet.
Note that at work can also mean ‘working’; hard at work = working hard:
He’s hard at work on a new picture.
office (= place of work) needs the:
He is at/in the office.
To be in office (without the) means to hold an official (usually political) position. To be out of office = to be no longer in power.
the can be omitted when speaking of the subject’s or speaker’s own town:
We go to town sometimes to buy clothes.
We were in town last Monday.
NOTE If an adjective is preceded by so, the a or an must be placed between the adjective and the noun. I have never known so dry a summer, (not a so dry summer). The indefinite article always follows the word such when it is applied to things which are countable. I have never known such a dry summer, (not a such dry summer) Such a thing has never happened before, (not a such thing)
(i) ‘a’ is used before nouns beginning with a consonant sound:
a boy / a chair / a dog / a pen
(ii) an’is used before nouns beginning with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u)
an apple / an egg / an inkpot / an umbrella
Note: The initial sound, not the spelling is important.
The Indefinite article is not used
(a) Before uncountable nouns: The following nouns are singular and uncountable in English: advice, information, news, luggage, baggage, furniture, politics, knowledge, pay, health, soap, homework, weather. They are often preceded by: some, any, a little, a lot of, a piece of etc; as.
Our teacher gave us a piece of advice.
There isn’t any news.
Do you need some more information.
(b) Before plural nouns: The indefinite article has no plural form. Therefore the plural of a horse is horses.
(c) Materials: glass, wood, iron, stone, paper, cloth, sugar, oil, wine, coffee, tea, water, etc. are considered uncountable. But many of these nouns also denote one particular thing, and then take an article:
Windows are made of glass but Have a glass of wine.
Iron is a metal but I use an iron (electric iron).
(d) Before abstract nouns: beauty, happiness, fear, hope, death, bravery, laughter, sadness, mercy, etc., except when they are used in a particular sense:
He burst into laughter.
He was gay with happiness.
The accused asked for mercy.
She was a woman of great beauty.
(e) Before names of meals, except when preceded by an adjective:
We have lunch at noon.
He gave us a hearty (adj) meal.
(f) In exclamatory sentences with uncountable nouns:
What good milk this is!
What weather we are having!
(g) The indefinite article is not used if the noun denotes a title or office that can only be held by one person at a time, e.g.
They made him King (Not: ‘a king’).
Mr. Ghosh was Professor of English at Calcutta University. (Not: ‘a Professor of English’).
The Definite Article (THE) is used
The definite article can be used before singular or plural nouns whether countable or uncountable. It is used:
(a) Before nouns of which there is only one, or which are considered as one:
the earth the sun the moon the sea the sky the North Pole
(b) Before a noun that is to be particularized by a defining relative clause:
This is the book that I advised you to read.
(c) With the meaning:
‘The one we have just spoken about’, e.g.,
once upon a time there was a widow who lived in a hut. The hut was by the side of the river and the widow had lived there all her life.
Note. The indefinite article a here introduces a new thing or person; the definite article, the denotes a thing or person already mentioned. (d) Before the name of a country that is a union of smaller entities.