Using Articles: a, an, the

Articles are little words that we use before a noun.

There are three articles:

  • a;
  • an;
  • the.

Articles can be definite or indefinite.

'The' is the definite article.

'A' and 'an' are indefinite articles.

Articles are a type of determiner. You don't need to use an article if you are using a different determiner.

Definite Article: the

There is only one definite article: 'the'.

Use 'the' when the noun you are talking about refers to something specific, or the person you are speaking to knows what you are referring to.

The dog is on the chair.

I am talking about a specific dog. You know which dog I am talking about.

We also use 'the' when we are talking about unique objects or places.

The Eiffel Tower is in Paris.

There is only one Eiffel Tower. It is unique.

The Earth revolves around the Sun.

There is only one Earth and one Sun.

We can use 'the' with singular and plural nouns.

The dog.

The dogs.

Learn more about singular and plural nouns.

Indefinite Article: a, an

There are two indefinite articles: 'a' and 'an'.

Use 'a' or 'an' when the noun you are talking about does not refer to something specific.

I would like a banana.

I'm not talking about one specific banana. Any banana is ok.

We use 'a' or 'an' to introduce something for the first time. After we have introduced it, we can use 'the'.

John has a dog and a cat. The dog is called Rover, and the cat is called Fluffy.

Use 'a dog' and 'a cat' in the first sentence to introduce them. In the second sentence I use 'the dog' and 'the cat' because you know which dog and cat I am talking about.

We can only use 'a' and 'an' with singular nouns.

A dog.

Do I use 'a' or 'an'?

Use 'a' when the noun starts with a consonant sound.

A car.

A banana.

A television.

Use 'an' when the noun starts with a vowel sound.

An apple.

An event.

An umbrella.

Vowels are the letters a, e, i, o, u. All the other letters are consonants.

It is the first sound of the word that is important, not the first letter.

Some nouns that start with a consonant have a vowel sound. We use 'an'.

An hour.

'Hour' starts with the sound /aʊ/. It is a vowel sound.

Some nouns that start with a vowel have a consonant sound. We use 'a'.

A university.

'University' starts with the sound /j/. It is a consonant sound.

We use special symbols to show different sounds. They are called the phonetic alphabet.

No Article (Zero Article)

Sometimes we don't use an article at all.

We don't use an article when we are talking about things generally, or when we are talking about all instances of something.

I don't like apples.

In this sentence I am talking about apples generally. I am referring to all apples.

I don't like the apples we bought yesterday.

In this sentence I am referring to specific apples (the ones we bought yesterday), so I say 'the apples'.

There are certain types of nouns that don't use articles.

1. Countries, cities, and states

We don't use articles before the names of cities, countries, or states.

I live in London.

The exception is names that have a plural noun, or include the word 'kingdom', 'republic', 'state', or 'commonwealth'. We always use 'the' before these names.

The Philippines

The United Kingdom

The United States of America

2. Academic subjects

We don't use articles before the names of academic subjects.

John studies economics and science.

Using Articles

The article goes before the noun. You can only use one article or determiner with each noun.

article + noun

Knowing which article to use can be tricky, and you will discover lots of exceptions. Don't worry if you don't understand it all now.