Knowing when and how to use English articles (a, an, thecan be confusing, especially to those whose native languages don’t have articles.
To determine which article to use with a noun, ask yourself two questions:
- Is the noun definite or indefinite?
- Is the noun count or noncount?
Definite vs. Indefinite
There are two types of articles in English: definite (the) and indefinite (a/an). The definite article is used when a noun is specific to both the speaker and the hearer.
Ex. I have the book you asked for.
In this sentence, the is used because both the hearer and the speaker have the same book in mind; the hearer has asked for the specific book he wants and the speaker responds that he has that specific book.
The indefinite article is used to refer to any member of a group or category.
Ex. I have a book for you.
In this sentence, a is used because the noun book is specific to the speaker, but not to the hearer. The speaker knows exactly which book it is because he owns it; for the hearer, however, it could be any book—the book is any member of the category of books. Note that you use an when the word after it begins with a vowel sound (e.g., “an apple,” “an ugly sweater,” “an ice cream cone”). If the word in question begins with a vowel, but the vowel sound like a consonant, use a (e.g., “a bull,” “a tomato,” or “a pen”).
Definite by Context
A previously nonspecific noun can take the definite article because of context.
Ex. Masha found a dog. The dog ran away, however.
In the first sentence, dog is not specific to the hearer. (The hearer does not know what dog Masha found—it could be any dog in the category of dogs.) So we use a dog. However, in the second sentence, dog has become specific by context. (The hearer knows what dog ran away—the one Masha found in the previous sentence.) So we say the dog.
Count vs. Noncount Nouns
Another factor determining which article to use in a given context is the concept of count and noncount nouns. The indefinite article, a/an, is used with nouns that can be counted.
Ex.1 I saw a child.
Ex.2 Kim ate an orange.
Because both children and oranges can be counted (there could be three children), we use the indefinite article.
Now look at these examples:
Ex.1 She drank the water.
Ex.2 The dog sat in the shade.
Because both water and shade cannot be counted (there can’t be three waters), we use the definite article.
Be careful of plurals! As you can see in the chart below, plural count nouns take the same articles as noncount nouns. For example:
|Ex.1 I saw some children.
|Ex.2 She drank some water.
Both of these examples are correct—children and water both take the same article, despite the fact thatchildren can be counted and water cannot. (Note that the word some functions as an indefinite article for plurals.) The chart that follows explains which article should be used with each type of noun.
|Type of Noun:
With Plural Nouns. Often, the article is omitted completely with indefinite plural nouns. The nonspecific meaning, however, stays the same.
|Ex.1 I saw children.
||Indefinite Plural Count
|Ex.2 I saw some children.
||Indefinite Plural Count
|Ex.3 I saw the children.
||Definite Plural Count
In the first example, the speaker saw children in general (i.e., I saw children instead of adults). In the second example, the children seen are still nonspecific, but this time the speaker has seen a number of children, albeit an indeterminate number (i.e., some children). In the third example, the definite article indicates that the speaker saw specific children (i.e., I saw Rashida’s children).
With Noncount Nouns. Articles can also be omitted with noncount nouns.
|Ex.1 Emily drank water.
|Ex.2 Emily drank some water.
|Ex.3 Emily drank the water.
In the first example, Emily drank water in general (i.e., she drank water instead of tea). In the second example, the water Emily drank is still nonspecific, but it is less general than the water in the first example (i.e., Emily drank some water, but we don’t know exactly how much). In the third example, Emily drank specific water (i.e.,the water from the well).