English grammar – Articles

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Form & meaning

  1. The is used when the listener/reader knows which person or thing we are talking about. This may be because:
    • We have mentioned this person/thing before and so there is shared knowledge between speaker/writer and listener/reader.
    • It is clear from the context which person or thing we are talking about.
    • There is only one of a particular person or thing.
  2. A or an is used when the listener/reader doesn’t know which person or thing we are talking about.
    • She took a glass of water and started to drink. (one of many glasses of water)
    • She took the glass of water in front of her. (it is clear which glass)
    • She took the glass of water and started to drink. (there is only one glass of water)
    • Can you turn on the TV? (we are talking about the TV in this room)
    • I need to see a doctor. (not any specific doctor)
    • I have to see the doctor tomorrow. (it’s clear I am talking about my usual doctor)
    • How many people have walked on the moon? (there is only one moon)
    • The best film I’ve ever seen is Top Gun. (there can only be one best film)
    • The carrots in my garden are almost ready. (carrots in general)
  3. Zero article is used when talking about people or things in general.
    • Carrots are good to eat. (specific carrots)
    • English people drink a lot of tea. (English people in general)
    • The English people in this hotel are very nice. (specific English people)
  4. A or an is used to say what kind of person or thing it is (often with an adjective, or to say it belongs to a particular group).
    • A cat is an animal and a bus is a vehicle.
    • You have a nice house.
    • That’s a very expensive car!
  5. With school, university, prison, hospital, church, bed, work and home we use the when we are talking about a particular one, and zero article when we are talking about the idea of school, university…
    • The church on our street was built in the 17th Century. (a particular church)
    • I go to church every Sunday. (the idea of church, not a particular building)
    • My friend works at the prison outside the city centre.
    • My husband is in prison.
    • The work isn’t finished yet.
    • I was feeling sick yesterday so I didn’t go to work.
    • The new bed is bigger than the old one.
    • I put my children to bed a 8pm.
  6. The is used with singular countable nouns to talk about a type of thing.
    • The computer was invented in the 20th Century. (not a particular computer)
    • The computer in my office is broken. (a particular one)
    • The crocodile is very dangerous. (this type of animal)
    • The crocodile in the river is very big. (a particular one)
    • She plays the piano. (not a particular piano but this type of instrument)
    • The piano she is playing is very old. (a particular one)
  7. The + adjective is used to talk about a group of people (including nationalities).
    • I always give money to the homeless.
    • The unemployed receive money from the government.
    • The French produce good wine.
  8. A or an is used to talk about someone’s job.
    • My wife is an optician.
    • She works as a mechanic.
  9. Zero article is used with continents, countries, regions, cities, streets, mountains, lakes and parks.
    • Asia, Italy, California, Bristol, Main St., Mount Everest, Lake Geneva, Central Park
  10. The is used if the country contains Kingdom, Republic, State or Union.
    • The United Kingdom
  11. The is used with plural names of people and places.
    • The Smiths, The Netherlands, The United States, The Bahamas, The Alps (also The Caribbean)
  12. The is used with oceans, seas, rivers and canals.
    • The Atlantic Ocean, The Red Sea, The Nile, The Panama Canal
  13. The is used with north, south, east and west to talk about the location of a place within another place.
    • Greece is in the south of Europe.
  14. The is normally used with buildings, except if the first word is the name of a place.
    • The White House, The Sheraton Hotel.
    • Oxford University, Buckingham Palace.

Pronunciation

See the phonemic chart for IPA symbols used below.

  1. The is usually pronounced as /ðə/, but is often pronounced as/ði/ before words beginning with vowel sounds or to add emphasis.
  2. a is usually pronounced as /ə/.
  3. an can be pronounced as /æn/ but in fast connected speech is usually pronounced as /ən/.

Related grammar points

Few and little
Using articles for anaphoric, cataphoric and exophoric referencing


2 teaching ideas and comments

  1. teachie96 says:

    Prepare cards with all the rules for articles and divide the class into two groups. Ask a student from group 1 to take one card and read the rule aloud. Now the members from group 2 must write a sentence based on that rule on the board. The second group chooses a card and the game goes on.

  2. Steinbeck says:

    Photocopy a page from a book or a newspaper. Cross out or blank out all the articles in the text with a pen/white out. Students then try to write the correct articles above the gaps.

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