Grammar [120 minutes]
a, an, the
Definite and Indefinite Articles
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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
Definite articles definition: a determiner (the) that introduces specific nouns and noun phrases.
Indefinite articles definition: a determiner (a, an) that introduces nonspecific nouns and noun phrases.
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.
The examples below will further outline the difference.
- a cow (nonspecific—could be any cow)
- the cow (specific—referring to a particular cow)
- an animal (nonspecific—could be any animal)
- the animal (specific—referring to a particular animal)
Indefinite Articles: A and AN
“A” and “an” signal that the noun modified is indefinite, referring to any member of a group. For example:
- “My daughter really wants a dog for Christmas.” This refers to any dog. We don’t know which dog because we haven’t found the dog yet.
- “Somebody call a policeman!” This refers to any policeman. We don’t need a specific policeman; we need any policeman who is available.
- “When I was at the zoo, I saw an elephant!” Here, we’re talking about a single, non-specific thing, in this case an elephant. There are probably several elephants at the zoo, but there’s only one we’re talking about here.
Note: because A and An means one, they cannot be used in plural. For example:
- a chair, a city, a manager
- plural—CANNOT BE USED
It’s all about how it sounds!
Consonant or vowel sound?
a + singular noun beginning with a consonant:
- a boy
- a car
- a bike
- a zoo
- a dog
an + singular noun beginning with a vowel:
- an elephant
- an egg
- an apple
- an idiot
- an orphan
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)
- a university
- a unicycle
an + nouns starting with silent “h”:
- an hour
- an honest man
a + nouns starting with a pronounced “h”:
- a horse
- a human response
In some cases where “h” is pronounced, such as “historical,” you can use an. However, a is more commonly used and preferred. For example: A historical event is worth recording.
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:
- a broken egg
- an unusual problem
- a European country (sounds like ‘yer-o-pi-an,’ i.e. begins with consonant ‘y’ sound)
Membership in a group
In English, the indefinite articles are used to indicate membership in a group:
- I am a teacher. (I am a member of a large group known as teachers.)
- Brian is an Irishman. (Brian is a member of the people known as Irish.)
- Seiko is a practicing Buddhist. (Seiko is a member of the group of people known as Buddhists.)
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.
- “I love to sail over the water” (some specific body of water) or “I love to sail over water” (any water).
- “He spilled the milk all over the floor” (some specific milk, perhaps the milk you bought earlier that day) or “He spilled milk all over the floor” (any milk).
“A/an” can be used only with count nouns.
“I need a bottle of water.”
“I need a new glass of milk.”
Most of the time, you can’t say, “She wants a water,” unless you’re implying, say, a bottle of water.
There are some specific rules for using the with geographical nouns.
Do not use the before:
- names of most countries/territories: Italy, Mexico, Bolivia; however, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the United States
- 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
Do use before:
- 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
Sometimes it is possible to have a noun phrase with NO article.
- I need a bowl of rice. ← indefinite article
- I like the rice in this restaurant. ← definite article
- I eat rice every day. ← ZERO article
The ZERO article usually occurs in the following cases:
Plural and Uncountable Nouns
Singular Countable Nouns
People: Mary, Bill, Josef
Places: Jupiter, Russia, Bangkok, Heathrow Airport, Cambridge University, Waterloo Station
Streets: Oxford Street, Wall Street, Picadilly Circus
Languages: English, Russian
Academic subjects: History, Law, Physics
Days, months: Monday, November
Games and Sports
Noun + Number
- platform 3
- room 7
- page 44
- in bed
- at home
- to school
- to work
Movement or Transport
- on foot
- by car
- by bus
- by air
Newspaper Headlines, Notices, User Guides
- Plane Crashes On House
- Keep Area Clean
- Insert battery
Here are some example sentences showing the ZERO article in context.
- Cars can be dangerous.
- We seldom see courage like that.
- I could see clouds in the sky.
- There was milk on the doorstep.
- I gave it to Mary.
- She arrived in Bangkok yesterday.
- Do you speak French?
- He is good at tennis.
- People will travel to Mars soon.
- He is in room 45.
- Please turn to page 67.
- She’s in bed.
- Are you at home?
- They took her to hospital.
- I’m leaving town tomorrow by car.
- I go to school by bus.
- We usually meet on Monday.
- November is quite cold.
- Bullets were flying everywhere.
- Education is becoming more specialized these days.
Which article, if any?
A or An?
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