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Definite and Indefinite Articles (a/an/the)

An article is a type of adjective used before a noun or noun equivalent.

Using an article helps indicate whether a noun is specific or unspecific. Before a noun that is specific and known, the definite article (“the”) is used. Before an unspecified word, the indefinite article (“a” or “an”) is used.

The book was written by reputable authors.
He said that he had read a book by that author.

The first example indicates one specific book that was interesting while the second suggests that any book can be interesting.

Table of Contents
  1. What are Definite Articles?
  2. What are Indefinite Articles?
  3. How to Use an Article Before an Adjective?
  4. Articles with Pronouns
  5. When NOT to Use an Article

What are Definite Articles?

“The” is the definite article used before a noun that has a specific identity and/or is already introduced earlier in the same context. Definite articles indicate a noun that refers to one particular thing, person, place, etc..

I met the fireman who saved my dog the other day.

“The fireman” refers to one specific fireman who the author has met before.

The results demonstrate the effectiveness of the proposed solution.

“The results” refer to specific results presumably already introduced earlier in the same context.

This paper discusses a plan that would decrease the likelihood of cancer by making healthy choices.

“The likelihood of cancer” here is a specific uncountable noun.

When to use definite articles

Type of Noun When to Use Example 
Countable noun Referring to the entire, specific group The kangaroo is an animal that loves to hop.
One specific member of the countable noun The moon rises above the horizon.
Uncountable noun One specific uncountable noun We examined the water in streams.
Noun 1 + of + Noun 2 The edge of the horizon is the furthest visible distance.

Examples of Definite Articles in Use

Definite articles are also used in the following situations:

  • Before the names of famous places and landmarks and before specific rivers, oceans, mountain ranges, etc.
  • Before the names of public institutions, known magazines and newspapers, etc.
  • When generalizing  an entire group or species
The Eiffel Tower is the most visited tourist attraction in the world.

“The Eiffel Tower” here refers to a specific place, a well-known tourist attraction. Note that not all famous attractions take an article, but those that do always take a definite article.

The emperor penguin is the largest species of penguin.

“The emperor penguin” refers to an an entire species of penguin.

What are Indefinite Articles?

“A” and “An” are the indefinite articles used before a noun that has an unspecified identity. They are used to refer to a general idea rather than one particular thing.

Publishing a book is the lifetime goal of my father.

“A book” refers to an unspecified book that the author’s father is willing to have published one day.

An external influence includes unavoidable factors a business may encounter.

“An external influence” does not refer to a specific external influence, but rather to any external influence in general.

In this research paper, an irregularity of a composite was studied. The irregularity found during the experiment proved the hypothesis.

“An” is used when “irregularity” is first mentioned and “the” precedes the irregularity mentioned the second time.

When to use indefinite articles

Type of Noun When to Use Example
Countable noun One member of a countable noun I have an idea for our research paper.
First mention of a countable noun We found a concept.The concept was inspired by a work of art.
Uncountable noun Never used with indefinite article N/A

Using articles before singular nouns

A singular countable noun always requires an article before it while a plural noun does not always require an article. The same rule applies for using “the”, “a” or “an”, depending on whether a noun is specific or unspecific. When/how to use the indefinite article depends on the sound of how the word begins. “A” comes before the words that begin with a consonant sound while “An” precedes words that begin with a vowel sound.

Our team came up with an idea of recruiting the participants of the experiment among the psychology students. The idea was to gather information from people actually studying the relevant area

Here, “idea” is a singular countable noun. Writing “an idea” indicates that this idea has not been introduced yet. The use of “the idea” in the following sentence indicates the idea from the previous sentence.

He was a honest student.
He was an honest student.

The article “an” is used because as the first letter of the following noun is a consonant pronounced with a vowel sound.

An URL for the survey will be sent to the participants of research.
A URL for the survey will be sent to the participants of research.

The article “a” is used because the first letter of the following word, or acronym, is a vowel pronounced with a consonant sound.

Using indefinite articles with uncountable nouns

Uncountable nouns refer to nouns that cannot be counted (or would be so difficult to count that they are treated similar to a singular noun). For example, intangible liquid things such as air and water, and things that are impossible to count such as rice and sand, are all uncountable nouns. Indefinite articles (“a” and “an”) typically cannot be used with uncountable nouns.

Would you like to have a wine?
Would you like to have some wine?

“Wine” is an uncountable noun and thus does not include an indefinite article.

However, certain uncountable nouns can sometimes be colloquially treated as countable nouns. Such nouns are usually preceded by an indefinite article.

I will have a coffee.

“A coffee” means “a cup of coffee”.

Be careful not to make a noise.

“Make a noise” is an idiom that always takes an indefinite article.

How to Use an Article Before an Adjective?

Just as a noun is modified by an article, an adjective modifying a noun is often preceded by an article. In such cases, the article typically comes first followed by the adjective and noun.

Developing a strong research question requires spending significant time on preliminary investigation.

Articles with Pronouns

An article and a possessive pronoun cannot be used together to modify the same noun. This is because both articles and pronouns indicate specificity, and using them together would cause confusion. Possessive pronouns are somewhat more specific than articles, so if you want to refer to something that belongs to someone, a pronoun is often the best choice.

The boy petted the my dog.
The boy petted the dog.
The boy petted my dog.
A his book might help you with your insomnia.
A book might help you with your insomnia.
His book might help you with your insomnia.

When NOT to Use an Article

An article can be omitted before a noun in some situations where the article is implied and does not need to be explicitly written. Articles should not be used before:

  1. Languages and nationalities
  2. Academic subjects
  3. Abstract ideas

Referring to languages and nationalities

Articles are never used before languages and nationalities.

I studied the Korean for 2 years.
I studied Korean for 2 years.

However, an indefinite article may be used before certain nationalities (the Chinese, the British) but not all.

The French are known for living life to the fullest.

“The French” here refers to the population of the specific nation, preceded by the definite article.

Referring to academic subjects

Articles are not usually used before academic subjects and fields of expertise, such as sports.

The mathematics is the subject that scares many students off.
Mathematics is the subject that scares many students off.
I studied the Engineering in university.
I studied Engineering in university.

Referring to some abstract ideas

Abstract ideas are not preceded by articles because they are not specific while the articles are used to indicate specificity. For example, love, creativity and enjoyment are the abstract ideas that are not preceded by articles.

The calmness is my strength.
Calmness is my strength.
One of my weaknesses is that I lack the humor.
One of my weaknesses is that I lack humor.