Forming sentences with articles

  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.


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

Keith Taylor
Keith is the co-founder of Eslbase. He has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years, in Indonesia, Australia, Morocco, Spain, Italy, Poland, France and now in the UK.


  1. 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. 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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