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I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else.

— Shelby Foote

Howdy Texas A&M students! My name is Hilary and I am peer writing consultant the University Writing Center. Welcome to write Right, the Writing Center’s very own podcast designed to help you become writing expert. In this presentation I am going to introduce to you when and when not to use the English articles “a,” “an,” and “the.”
At the bottom of your screen is what we call the article scale. It ranges from most specific to least specific or general. Using this sentence as an example, I am going to show you how to use the article scale as a guide to reason through your article decisions.
We are going to figure what article, if any, should fill in this blank. First, locate the noun in the sentence that might need an article. In this case, it is the word “group.” The article scale uses two simple questions to help you decide which article to place before this word. The first question is, “Is this noun specific in quantity?” This basically means, “Is there a set number of the noun you are referencing?” Another way of saying this is, “Is the noun countable?” Groups are countable. In this case, there is only one group because the word is singular. So our answer is yes. Using the article scale, we can effectively eliminate the no article option on the most general side of the scale. In order to choose an article, both criteria must be met. The second question to ask yourself is, “Is this noun specific in quality?” This question is a little trickier because it’s sort of abstract. It basically means, “Is this noun distinct from others like it?” Or “Is this noun in its most specific form?”
Your answer to this question depends on what meaning you are trying to convey. If you choose “the group,” you are talking about that one specific group of elected officials made up of certain known people. In this scenario, the people who make up the group are important. Meaning, it is important the selected group of officials you are talking about is Sarah, Elaine, and Joshua. If you choose “a group,” you are still talking about one group of elected officials, but maybe the actual people in the group aren’t that important, or aren’t even known. In this case, the fact of the group is more important than the details of the group.
So the question is: are we talking about any group, or a specific group of people?  As you can see, when you choose your article, you are telling your audience a lot about what you mean in a very small way. Let’s say that the group referred to in this sentence isn’t specific or isn’t distinctive in any way; that means this noun is not specific in quality. This leaves us with one affirmative answer, the quantity question, and one negative answer, the quality question. Look at the key below the scale: with one yes and one no answer the article scale tells us that the indefinite article “A” should be used.
Let’s try another example. Should there be an article before “electricity?” If so, which one? Question one: Is electricity specific in quantity? In this sentence, are there are a certain number of electricities we are referring to here? You can see already that making the word electricity plural is awkward. That’s because it isn’t really countable. It is a concept or idea. So our answer is no. Let’s look at question two: Is electricity specific in quality? In other words, is electricity distinctive in some way here? Is it as specific as it can be? No. There are many different adjectives we could use to specify this noun more, like “the remaining electricity.” With two negative answers, the article scale tells us to omit the article before electricity.  The word “electricity” is a scientific conceptual idea. It is an intangible idea. A lot of time abstract concepts like these don’t use articles.
To finish this sentence up, let’s look at the next blank. Here, we are talking about hydrogen and oxygen diatomic molecules. So question one: are these molecules specific in quantity? Diatomic molecules are countable, right? We can see this because the word “molecule” is made plural by adding an “s” at the end. So our answer is “yes.” We are adding specificity to the diatomic molecules by saying there is a specific quantity of them. Now for question two: are the molecules specific in quality? In this sentence, we are talking about specific diatomic molecules, hydrogen and oxygen molecules, not just any diatomic molecules. So our answer is yes. These molecules contain some special qualities that give them more distinction. According to our scale, two affirmative answers means the definite article is required here. That means we will use “the.”
I hope this presentation has helped to demystify the article for you. It’s important to remember that not every sentence will follow the scale exactly because there are always exceptions and special cases in English. However, this is a good resource to go through the kind of decisions you have to make when choosing an article. There are other resources on article usage on our website Thanks for watching, and we will see you next time on Write Right.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute The University Writing Center, Texas A&M University.

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