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 first example indicates one specific book that was interesting while the second suggests that any book can be interesting.
Table of Contents
- What are Definite Articles?
- What are Indefinite Articles?
- How to Use an Article Before an Adjective?
- Articles with Pronouns
- 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..
“The fireman” refers to one specific fireman who the author has met before.
“The results” refer to specific results presumably already introduced earlier in the same context.
“The likelihood of cancer” here is a specific uncountable noun.
When to use definite articles
|Type of Noun
|When to Use
|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.
|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” 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” 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.
“A book” refers to an unspecified book that the author’s father is willing to have published one day.
“An external influence” does not refer to a specific external influence, but rather to any external influence in general.
“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
|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.
|Never used with indefinite article
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.
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.
The article “an” is used because as the first letter of the following noun is a consonant pronounced with a vowel sound.
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.
“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.
“A coffee” means “a cup of coffee”.
“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.
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.
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:
- Languages and nationalities
- Academic subjects
- Abstract ideas
Referring to languages and nationalities
Articles are never used before languages and nationalities.
However, an indefinite article may be used before certain nationalities (the Chinese, the British) but not all.
“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.
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.
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