1. Indefinite Articles: a and anA
signal that the noun modified is indefinite, referring to any
member of a group. These indefinite articles are used with singular nouns when the noun is general; the corresponding indefinite quantity word some
is used for plural general nouns. The rule is:
- a + singular noun beginning with a consonant: a boy
- an + singular noun beginning with a vowel: an elephant
- a + singular noun beginning with a consonant sound: a user (sounds like 'yoo-zer,' i.e. begins with a consonant 'y' sound, so 'a' is used)
- some + plural noun: some s
If the noun is modified by an adjective, the choice between a
depends on the initial sound of the adjective that immedately follows the article:
- a broken egg
- an unusual problem
- a European country (sounds like 'yer-o-pi-an,' i.e. begins with consonant 'y' sound)
Note also that in English, the indefinite articles are used to indicate membership in a profession, nation, or religion.
- I am a teacher.
- Brian is an Irishman.
- Seiko is a practicing Buddhist.
2. Definite Article: the
The definite article is used before singular and plural nouns when the noun is particular or specific. The
signals that the noun is definite, that it refers to a particular
member of a group. Compare the indefinite and definite articles in the following examples:
| ||Indefinite (a or an)||Definite (the)|
|Singular||a dog (any dog)|
an apple (any apple)
|the dog (that specific dog)|
the apple (that specific apple)
|Plural||some dogs (any dogs)|
some apples (any apples)
|the dogs (those specific dogs)|
the apples (those specific apples)
is not used with noncountable nouns referring to something in a general sense:
[no article] Coffee is a popular drink.The
[no article] Japanese was his native language.
[no article] Intelligence is difficult to quantify.
is used with noncountable nouns that are made more specific by a limiting modifying phrase or clause:
The coffee in my cup is too hot to drink.The
The Japanese he speaks is often heard in the countryside.
The intelligence of animals is variable but undeniable.
is also used when a noun refers to something unique:
the White HouseNote: Geographical uses of theDo not
the theory of relativity
the 1999 federal budget
- names of countries (Italy, Mexico, Bolivia) except the Netherlands and the US
- names of cities, towns, or states (Seoul, Manitoba, Miami)
- names of streets (Washington Blvd., Main St.)
- names of lakes and bays (Lake Titicaca, Lake Erie) except with a group of lakes like the Great Lakes
- names of mountains (Mount Everest, Mount Fuji) except with ranges of mountains like the Andes or the Rockies or unusual names like the Matterhorn
- names of continents (Asia, Europe)
- names of islands (Easter Island, Maui, Key West) except with island chains like the Aleutians, the Hebrides, or the Canary Islands
Further Uses of Articles
- names of rivers, oceans and seas (the Nile, the Pacific)
- points on the globe (the Equator, the North Pole)
- geographical areas (the Middle East, the West)
- deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas (the Sahara, the Persian Gulf, the Black Forest, the Iberian Peninsula)
In addition, use of a, an,
also depends on whether the noun following the article possesses one of these paired qualities:
- Countable vs. noncountable
- First vs. subsequent mention
- General vs. specific
1. Countable vs. NoncountableA
are used if the noun can be counted. The
must be used when the noun cannot be counted.
2. First vs. Subsequent MentionA
is used to introduce a noun when it is mentioned for the first time in a piece of writing. The
is used afterward each time you mention that same noun.
An awards ceremony at the Kremlin would not normally have attracted so much attention. But when it was leaked that Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko would be presenting medals to three cosmonauts, interest in the ceremony intensified. Time, Sept. 17, 1984.Note: There is
and there are
can be used to introduce an indefinite noun at the beginning of a paragraph or essay.
There is a robin in the tree outside my window. When my cat jumps up on the desk, the robin flies away.
3. General vs. SpecificA
, and the
can all be used to indicate that a noun refers to the whole class to which individual countable nouns belong. This use of articles is called generic
, from the Latin word meaning "class."
A tiger is a dangerous animal. (any individual tiger)
Thetiger is a dangerous animal. (all tigers: tiger as a generic category)
The difference between the indefinite a
and the generic a
is that the former means any one member of a class while the latter means all of the members of a class.
The omission of articles also expresses a generic (or general) meaning:
no article with a plural noun: Tigers are dangerous animals. (all tigers) Omission of Articles
no article with a noncountable noun: Anger is a destructive emotion. (any kind of anger)
While some nouns combine with one article or the other based on whether they are countable or noncountable, others simply never take either article. Some common types of nouns that don't take an article are:1. Names of languages and nationalities
2. Names of sports
3. Names of academic subjects
- computer science