Improve your English: how to use definite and indefinite articles

apple and pear

an apple, and a pear

Indefinite articles: ‘a’ or ‘an’

The two indefinite articles in English are ‘a’ and ‘an’.

They are only used before count nouns, and they are used to modify non-specific nouns.

Examples:

1. He ate an apple. (We don’t know which apple he ate)

2. Let’s watch a DVD. (We don’t yet know which DVD)

3. She’s married to an English man. (We don’t know which English man)

 

They are also used to say what someone is or what job they do.

Examples:

1. She’s a French teacher based in the UK.

2. He’s an electrician.

3. She’s a university student.

4. He’s a Muslim.

 

They are not used with noncount nouns or plural nouns. For example:

He likes brown bread (noncount noun)

He loves fast cars (plural noun)

 

We use ‘a’ before words that start with a consonant or consonant sound.

Examples:

a pear

a bird

a coursebook

a hundred

a language

a university – /ˌjuːnɪˈvɜː(r)səti/

a European – /ˌjʊərəˈpiːən/

 

We use ‘an’ before words that start with a vowel or vowel sound.

Examples:

an apple

an egg

an English lesson

an exam

an honour –  /ˈɒnə(r)/

an hour – /ˈaʊə(r)/

 

Definite article: ‘the’

‘The’ is used to modify specific nouns when it is clear what is being referred to.

Examples:

1. The moon. (there is only one moon)

2. The Queen of England. (there is only one Queen of England)

3. My dad would never let me drive the car. (the family car)

4. The English course for beginners starts next Tuesday. (a specific English course)

5. They were lost in the Sahara desert for four days.

6. We’re going on a two-week cruise down the Mississippi river.

7. She sailed solo across the Atlantic.

8. Can you pass me the salt, please?

 

‘The’ can be used with noncount nouns.

Examples:

1. Who’s eaten all the bread?

2. The weather was terrible yesterday.

3. She mixed the flour with the eggs.

 

 

Zero article

Some nouns don’t take an article before them. For example, we do not use an article when referring to:

♦ names of sports: e.g. football, tennis, ice-skating, swimming

♦ academic subjects: e.g. geography, history, English literature, physics

♦ languages and nationalities: e.g. Chinese, English, French, Mandarin, Polish, Catalan.

If you are referring to the population of a country or nation, an article is used e.g. The French, The Chinese.

Example: The French are well known for their excellent food.

♦ countries, territories or islands: e.g. Holland, Peru, Latvia, New Zealand, Easter Island. There are some exceptions to this e.g. The US/The United States, The Caribbean, The Philippines

♦ continents: e.g. Africa, Asia, Europe

♦ cities or towns: e.g. London, Moscow, Sydney

 

Do you have any questions about articles, and how to use them?

Why not practise your English and write an example sentence or two in the comments? 🙂

 

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Angela Boothroyd

Angela Boothroyd

English language teacher at Botanical Linguist
Hi, I'm Angela, the Botanical Linguist, and I show learners of English how to become successful and self-directed or independent language learners. If you want to improve your English accuracy and fluency and learn everyday strategies and activities that will help you learn English without spending a lot of money on lessons, subscribe to my free newsletter here.
Angela Boothroyd
Angela Boothroyd
Angela Boothroyd

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Comments

  1. Hi Angela,

    Really interesting post! I write things automatically, but have never had it fully explained to me. Thank you for once again teaching me in such an easily understandable format.

  2. I must have had a good teacher or two somewhere in my childhood as I manage to get these ones right (most of the time). I never realised there were so many types of noun.

  3. I love this and am sending it to my nieces and nephew…the one that I recently (ahem I know…) learned was an hotel…. and now I know why as it sounds like it starts with a vowel…!
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    • Hi Sarupa,

      Thank you!

      Ooh, ‘hotel’ is a good one, and one that causes some disagreement too 🙂

      It used to be common for ‘hotel’ to be spoken without the ‘h’ – i.e. ‘otel’ – but now it’s usually pronounced with its initial ‘h’, so generally speaking we say ‘a hotel’ nowadays.

      However, (isn’t there always a ‘however’? 🙂 ), some people do still say that the correct way is ‘an hotel’ without the spoken ‘h’.

      Thank you for visiting and for bringing this up – it’s all very interesting 🙂

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