How to use Articles

Learn about the articles “the”, “a”, “an” and “zero article” in English grammar. Clear and simple explanation of meaning and use, with examples.

Keith Taylor

Contents

Five Minute Guide to Articles

Using “the”

  1. We use the 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.

Using “a / an”

  1. We use a or an 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)

Using “zero article”

  1. We use zero article 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)

Other rules and use of articles

  1. We use a or an 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!
  2. 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.
  3. We use the 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)
  4. We use the + adjective 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.
  5. We use a or an to talk about someone’s job.
    • My wife is an optician.
    • She works as a mechanic.
  6. We use zero article with continents, countries, regions, cities, streets, mountains, lakes and parks.
    • Asia, Italy, California, Bristol, Main St., Mount Everest, Lake Geneva, Central Park
  7. We use the if the country contains Kingdom, Republic, State or Union.
    • The United Kingdom
  8. We use the with plural names of people and places.
    • The Smiths, The Netherlands, The United States, The Bahamas, The Alps (also The Caribbean)
  9. We use the with oceans, seas, rivers and canals.
    • The Atlantic Ocean, The Red Sea, The Nile, The Panama Canal
  10. We use the with north, south, east and west to talk about the location of a place within another place.
    • Greece is in the south of Europe.
  11. We normally use the 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/.

Articles in detail

What are articles?

Articles are a type of determiner, one of the nine parts of speech. Determiners come before nouns to tell us something about the noun – to introduce it or signal it. In the case of articles, they tell us whether a noun is a specific one or not.

Here are the types of article:

the

This is called the definite article.

We can use the definite article with singular and plural countable nouns (the apple; the apples) and with non-countable nouns (the water). Remember that a countable noun is one that we can count. We can say “one apple, two apples…”, but it doesn’t make any sense to say “one water, two waters…”.

a, an

These are called indefinite articles.

We choose “a” when the first sound in the following noun is a consonant sound (a guest) and “an” when the first sound is a vowel sound (an umbrella). Notice we said the first sound in the noun which follows and not the first letter. Sometimes a vowel sounds like a consonant, which is why we say “a university” and not “an university”. The “u” in “university” sounds like a “y”.

We can only use indefinite articles when we’re talking about one of something. This means that we can only use them with singular countable nouns (a carrot, an apple).

Ø

This symbol represents the zero article – in other words, when we choose not to use “the”, “a” or “an”.

So why do we sometimes choose to say “it’s the potato” (definite article), sometimes “it’s a potato” (indefinite article) and sometimes just “it’s potato” (zero article)? Well, there are a number of rules, or tendencies, that tell us when to use each one. Let’s have a look at these now.

Definite and indefinite articles

We use “the” when the listener or reader knows which person or thing we are talking about. What do we mean by this? Well, it may be that we have mentioned this person or thing before and so there is some shared knowledge between the speaker and listener (or reader and writer). Or it may be that it is very clear from the context which person or thing we are talking about. Or it may even be that there is only one of a particular person or thing, leaving no other possibility.

We use “a” or “an”, on the other hand, when the listener or reader doesn’t know which person or thing we are talking about. Maybe it’s the first time we’ve mentioned the person or thing and there is no clear context which makes it obvious.

Here are some examples:

  • I wrote an email yesterday. The email was very long.

The first time, we use “an” because it’s the first time we’ve mentioned this email. The second time, we use “the” because we now know which email we are talking about.

  • She took a glass of water and started to drink.
  • She took the glass of water nearest to her.

In the first sentence we use “a” because we’re talking about one of many glasses of water, not a particular one. In the second sentence it’s clear which particular glass of water we’re referring to.

  • Can you turn on the TV?

Here we can imagine that the speaker and listener are together in the same room. It is clear to the listener that the speaker is talking about the TV in this room, and not a TV across the other side of the city.

  • I need to see a doctor.
  • I have to see the doctor tomorrow.

In the first sentence I don’t have any particular doctor in mind, but in the second one I’m making it clear that I’m referring to the doctor that I usually see.

  • How many people have walked on the moon?

There is only one moon, and so we use “the”.

  • The best film I’ve ever seen is Duel.

There can only be one best film that I’ve seen.

Zero article

The main reason we use zero article (in other words the absence of an article) is to talk about things in general. We can talk about things in general either with a plural countable noun (apples) or with a non-countable noun (water).

So what do we mean when we say “to talk about things in general”. Well, let’s compare some nouns using zero article and using “the”:

  • Carrots are good for you.
  • The carrots growing in my garden are almost ready to eat.

“Carrots” is a countable and plural noun. In the first sentence we are using zero article to talk about carrots in general. In the second sentence though, we’ve added “the” to show that we’re no longer talking about carrots in general, but about some specific carrots in my garden.

  • English people drink a lot of tea.
  • The English people in this hotel are very nice.

Again here, “people” is a plural noun, and in the first sentence we are using zero article to make a generalisation about all English people. In the second sentence we’ve used “the” to narrow it down to only the English people in this particular hotel.

  • You should drink water.
  • You shouldn’t drink the water in this lake.

“Water” is a non-countable noun. We’ve used zero article in the first sentence to talk about water in general, and “the” in the second sentence to talk about some specific water.

So far we’ve seen how we use the definite article (the) when the listener knows which person or thing we’re talking about, and the indefinite article (a, an) when the listener doesn’t know which person or thing we’re talking about. We’ve also seen how we use zero article to talk about things in general.

But there are some other, more specific uses of these articles which are best explained separately and individually, because they don’t so easily fit into these broad descriptions above. Let’s have a look at some of these.

Indefinite article

We use “a/an” to say what kind of person or thing someone or something is, often with an adjective, or to say it belongs to a particular group.

  • You have a nice house.
  • That’s a very expensive car!
  • A cat is an animal and a bus is a vehicle.

We also use “a/an” to say what someone’s job is.

  • My husband is an optician.
  • She works as a mechanic.

Definite article

We use “the” with nominal adjectives. A nominal adjective is one we use to talk about “all the members of a particular group of people or things”. To make them, we put “the” before the adjective. Here are some examples:

  • The English like to eat cucumber sandwiches.
  • The rich own 95% of the word’s wealth.
  • The government is doing nothing to help the homeless.

We also use “the” with the names of oceans, seas, rivers and canals.

  • The Atlantic Ocean
  • The Red Sea
  • The Nile
  • The Panama Canal

Zero article or definite article?

There are a few cases where we have to choose between “the” and “zero article”, depending on how we are using the noun. The first of these is when we are giving the names of people, continents, countries, regions, cities, streets, mountains, lakes and parks. Normally we use zero article, but if the name is plural, or we are naming a country or area with the word “Kingdom”, “Republic”, “State” or “Union” we use “the”:

  • Italy
  • California
  • Mount Everest
  • Central Park
  • The United Kingdom
  • The European Union
  • The Bahamas
  • The Alps

The second case is with school, university, prison, hospital, church, bed, work and home. With these nouns we use “the” when we are talking about a particular one but zero article when we are talking about the idea of school or university (or prison, etc…)

  • The church on our street was built in the 17th Century. (the – a particular church)
  • I go to church every Sunday. (zero article – the idea of church, not a particular building)
  • My friend works at the prison outside the city centre. (the – a particular prison)
  • My husband is in prison. (zero article – the idea of prison, not a particular building)

Finally, we normally use “the” with buildings, except if the first word is the name of a place, in which case we use zero article.

  • The White House
  • The Sheraton Hotel
  • Oxford University
  • Buckingham Palace

Related grammar points

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

Keith Taylor

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

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2 comments

  • Steinbeck

    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.

  • teachie96

    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.

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