English articles are something that many learners struggle with, especially if their native language doesn’t have them. That’s why I thought I’d write this brief overview of how to use definite and indefinite articles in English.
As I’m sure you already know, the two types of articles in English are: the definite article (the) and the indefinite article (a/an). They are used in front of nouns (such as ‘a house’, ‘the book’) and I’m about to give you some rules as to when you should use each one!
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General vs. specific
The most straightforward rule for using articles is that when you mention something for the first time and it’s not clear what exactly you’re talking about, you use the indefinite article (a/an) and once it’s clear what you’re talking about, you switch to the definite article (the). Take a look at this example:
‘I read a book last month.’
I’m talking about a book and my conversation partner doesn’t know yet which book specifically I’m talking about. It’s just one book among many possible books that I might be talking about. Take a look at this now:
‘I read a book last month. It’s called ‘One hundred years of solitude’ and its author is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The book was very interesting.’
I introduced the book by using the indefinite article ‘a’ but when it became clear which book specifically I was talking about, I switched to the definite article ‘the’.
Let’s look at another example:
‘There were three people waiting outside – a woman, a man and a child. The child was wearing a yellow t-shirt.’
First, I introduced the three people because it wasn’t yet clear what I was talking about so I used the indefinite article ‘a’. I then switched to the definite article ‘the’ to talk about the child. It was my second mention of the child and at that point it was clear that I was talking about the child who was waiting outside (and not any other child).
I also mentioned the child’s t-shirt for the first time – I used ‘a’. Look at this, though:
‘There were three people waiting outside – a woman, a man and a child. The child was wearing a yellow t-shirt. The t-shirt was stained.’
I used ‘the’ to refer to the t-shirt when I referred to it for the second time.
OK, let’s move on to rule number 2 now!
Unique things and people
This rule applies when there’s only one of something, for example when we talk about the sun (because there’s only one!).
‘The sun rises in the east.’
Similarly, the rule applies when we talk about a person who’s unique – there’s only one such person. For example, if I want to talk about the president of my country. There’s only one president in my country so I will use the definite article ‘the’.
We also use ‘the’ when we talk about something that’s the only one of something in our immediate environment. Take a look at this example:
‘I cleaned the kitchen this morning.’
My conversation partner (for example, my housemate) will know exactly which kitchen I’m talking about because we only have one kitchen in our house!
‘Could you pass me the remote control please?’
Again, there’s only one remote control in our living room, so my housemate will know exactly which remote control I’m referring to.
And the final example – imagine I’m pointing at a group of people which includes a boy wearing a red t-shirt. I would say:
‘Look at the boy in the red t-shirt!’
It’s clear which boy I’m referring to because he’s the only one wearing a red t-shirt so I will use the definite article ‘the’.
Groups of people
We use the definite article ‘the’ when referring to a group of people who share the same characteristic – for example, people who are rich or people who are Spanish.
‘The rich can give more money to charity.’ (‘The rich’ simply means ‘rich people’.)
‘The Spanish have dinner late.’ (‘The Spanish’ means ‘Spanish people’.)
Countable vs. uncountable and plural
Another rule to remember when it comes to how to use definite and indefinite articles in English is that ‘a’ is never used with uncountable nouns or with plurals. For example:
I like tea. Not:
I like a tea.
I like apples. Not:
I like an apples.
Another thing to note is that ‘a’ is used with nouns that start with a vowel (an elephant, an orange) and ‘a’ is used with nouns that start with a consonant (a tree, a car).
The definite article ‘the’ should also be used with the superlative form of adjectives. For example: ‘the best film I’ve ever seen’, ‘the biggest slice of cake’, ‘the most expensive car in the shop’.
The definite article ‘the’ is also used when talking about playing musical instruments, such as:
‘Joe plays the piano very well.’
Names of some countries
You will also use the definite article ‘the’ in front of the names of some countries. The most common examples of that are: ‘the United States’, ‘the United Kingdom’ and ‘the Netherlands’.
Most other countries don’t need any article at all (for example: ‘I went to Spain’ or ‘France is an interesting country’.)
There are situations when you don’t actually need to use any article at all. Here are some examples:
‘Apples are tasty.’
You don’t need any article there because you’re not talking about any specific apples – you’re talking about apples in general (and we don’t use ‘a/an’ with plural nouns!).
Note that if you were talking about some specific apples, you could use the definite article ‘the’. For example:
‘Look at the apples on the table!’
Here, you’re referring to the specific apples on the table in your house.
‘I had water and juice with my dinner.’
We’ve got some uncountable nouns here (‘water’ and ‘juice’) and we don’t use ‘a/an’ with such nouns. We could, however, use ‘the’ if we were referring to something specific. For example:
‘I had water and juice with my dinner. The water tasted disgusting.’
Once you’ve mentioned the water, when you refer to it for the second time, you use the definite article ‘the’.
Additional examples and exceptions
As with anything, there are exceptions to the rules I explained above. However, this article lists the most common situations in which you use ‘a/an’, ‘the’ or no article. Knowing these rules will help you use English correctly most of the time!
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