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Using Articles


This handout discusses the differences between indefinite articles (a/an) and definite articles (the).

Contributors:Paul Lynch, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2018-02-14 03:18:17

What is an article? Basically, an article is an adjective. Like adjectives, articles modify nouns.

English has two articles: the and a/an. The is used to refer to specific or particular nouns; a/an is used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. We call the the definite article and a/an the indefinite article.

the = definite article

a/an = indefinite article

For example, if I say, "Let's read the book," I mean a specific book. If I say, "Let's read a book," I mean any book rather than a specific book.

Here's another way to explain it: The is used to refer to a specific or particular member of a group. For example, "I just saw the most popular movie of the year." There are many movies, but only one particular movie is the most popular. Therefore, we use the.

"A/an" is used to refer to a non-specific or non-particular member of the group. For example, "I would like to go see a movie." Here, we're not talking about a specific movie. We're talking about any movie. There are many movies, and I want to see any movie. I don't have a specific one in mind.

Let's look at each kind of article a little more closely.

Indefinite Articles: a and an

"A" and "an" signal that the noun modified is indefinite, referring to any member of a group. For example:

Remember, using a or an depends on the sound that begins the next word. So...

Remember that these rules also apply when you use acronyms:

Introductory Composition at Purdue (ICaP) handles first-year writing at the University. Therefore, an ICaP memo generally discusses issues concerning English 106 instructors.

Another case where this rule applies is when acronyms or initialisms start with consonant letters but have vowel sounds:

An MSDS (material safety data sheet) was used to record the data. An SPCC plan (Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasures plan) will help us prepare for the worst.

If the noun is modified by an adjective, the choice between a and an depends on the initial sound of the adjective that immediately follows the article:

Remember, too, that in English, the indefinite articles are used to indicate membership in a group:

Definite Article: the

The definite article is used before singular and plural nouns when the noun is specific or particular. The signals that the noun is definite, that it refers to a particular member of a group. For example:

"The dog that bit me ran away." Here, we're talking about a specific dog, the dog that bit me.

"I was happy to see the policeman who saved my cat!" Here, we're talking about a particular policeman. Even if we don't know the policeman's name, it's still a particular policeman because it is the one who saved the cat.

"I saw the elephant at the zoo." Here, we're talking about a specific noun. Probably there is only one elephant at the zoo.

Count and Noncount Nouns

The can be used with noncount nouns, or the article can be omitted entirely.

"A/an" can be used only with count nouns.

Most of the time, you can't say, "She wants a water," unless you're implying, say, a bottle of water.

Geographical use of the

There are some specific rules for using the with geographical nouns.

Do not use the before:

Do use the before:

Omission of Articles

Some common types of nouns that don't take an article are:

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