How to Use Articles in English Grammar Correctly

How to Use An, A, and The Correctly

Author: Sarah Perowne

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Ever wondered what those words are before nouns that you see everywhere? Well, look no further; here, we will explain articles in an easy bitesize way so you can soon be the master of creating your own article examples.

What are articles?

In its most basic form, the articles in English grammar work like adjectives because they modify nouns. Articles are small words that help us see whether a noun is specific or not. There are three in English, "a, an, the." Let's take a look at the following examples.

  1. After the hard day, the warm bath was a welcome surprise.

Using the definite article "the" shows that a specific day was hard, and a specific bath was a welcome surprise.

2. A warm bath is a welcome surprise after a hard day.

Using the indefinite article "a" shows that, in general, on any difficult day, a warm bath is a welcome surprise.

These three articles function differently in helping define a noun as definite or indefinite in English grammar, so let's look at them now.

How to Use Articles in English Grammar

Want to know to use articles in English grammar correctly? Keep reading, and you'll be an article master in no time.

Definite Article: Definition and Examples

The definite article "the" is always used before a noun when the identity is known or common. You can use it before a singular, plural, or uncountable noun.

  1. Let's go to the cinema tonight.
  2. The girls are outside playing.
  3. Where's the subway?
  4. I'm not sure where the hospital is.
  5. He's working at the Mcdonald's on 4th Street.

The Indefinite Article: Definition and Examples

The indefinite articles, ''a and an," are generally used before a general noun or when a singular noun's identity is unknown or unspecific, "an" goes before nouns with a vowel sound, and "a" goes before nouns with a consonant sound.

The Indefinite Article A

"A" is used before a singular noun, beginning with an English consonant sound.

  1. Mary asked her Mom to bring a box of cookies over.
  2. Only a few years ago, we decided to move house. 
  3. I don't have a fax machine.
  4. John really wanted a new computer.
  5. What a horrible day!

The Indefinite Article: 'An'

"an" is used before singular non-specific nouns that begin with one of the English vowels, A, E, I, O, and U.

  1. I've never been on an airplane.
  2. I don't need an umbrella.
  3. We have an encyclopedia. 
  4. Why don't you take an orange?
  5. She was an only child; she didn't have any siblings.

Indefinite vs. Definite Articles

Let's take a closer look at the differences between indefinite articles and the definite article.

The vs. A

Let's look at the following examples of articles in use with "the and a."

  1. I'd like a bar of chocolate. V.S. 2. I'd like the bar of chocolate!

In the 1st example, the indefinite article "a" doesn't tell us what kind of chocolate bar they want. However, in the 2nd example, the definite article "the" tells us what chocolate bar they want.

The vs. An

Let's look at the following examples of articles in use with "the and an."

  1. I need to take an umbrella today. V.S. 2. I need to take the umbrella today!

In the 1st example, the umbrella is not specific, whereas the 2nd umbrella is likely one the person already owns.

An vs. A

The indefinite articles "an and a" are used depending on the starting letter of the noun the article precedes.

  1. I need an envelope. (Envelope begins with a vowel, so we use an)
  2. I want to hire a bike. (Bike begins with a consonant, so we use a)
  3. I'm looking for a new keychain. (Can you guess why we use a?)
  4. He hadn't been working as an astrophysicist for long. (Can you guess why we use an?)

Article Flashcard Recap

Think you've got it? See if you can complete the following sentences.

Articles with Uncountable & Countable Nouns

To understand how to use these articles in English, it's also important to understand that nouns, which articles modify, are either countable or uncountable. Nouns can be countable or uncountable, meaning you can identify precisely how many there are of that particular thing or not. This isn't the same as identifying what that thing is; it's just telling you how many of that specific or non-specific thing there are.

Singular Countable Nouns

With singular countable nouns, we either use "an or "a."

Countable nouns are ones that you can place a valued number on; for example:

  • A Child (one child)
  • A Dog (one dog)
  • An Apple (one apple)
  1. I want an ice cream, please.
  2. I'd like to see an elephant in its natural habitat one day.
  3. What's on the agenda today? Well, we've got an appointment at 8:15.
  4. There's a missing dog.
  5. Have you packed a big bag for the flight?
  6. I've got a few things on my work desk; I need to organize them. 
  7. Let's take a trip to London in the summer.

Articles with Uncountable Nouns: Rules and Examples

However, some nouns are uncountable, meaning they can't be divided into a number value.

"The" can be used for all nouns, including uncountable ones, but we never use "an" or "a" with uncountable nouns. The following nouns are modified by "the."

  • Milk (uncountable)
  • Sunshine (uncountable)
  • Music (uncountable)
  • The Dogs

Note: as you can see with the noun dog, without the plural -s, it can be countable and therefore uses "a." With the addition of -s, which makes it plural, we use the article "the" as there's more than one.

  1. The neighbors' dogs are playing outside. 
  2. The sunshine is beautiful today!
  3. Did you listen to the music I sent you?
  4. Shall we look at the weather forecast for tomorrow?
  5. Did you hear back from the water company?

When is an Article Unnecessary? 

Although articles are used in almost every sentence, sometimes they aren't necessary, referred to as the zero article phrase.

Singular, countable nouns always need an article to precede them. However, plural and uncountable nouns don't always require an article.

Generally speaking, you don't need to use an article in the following circumstances:

  1. When using mass nouns. (Literature)
  2. When using proper nouns. (London) 
  3. When referring to means of transport. (by train) 
  4. When expressing time or place. (Midnight)

Examples Sentences Without an Article

  1. We studied literature in school. 
  2. I'm going there by train. 
  3. The concert starts at midnight.
  4. Water is coming through our ceiling.

Definite Article vs. Indefinite Article: Tips and Tricks

Here are a few tips and tricks to remember what article you need to use and whether you even need one!

  • If a noun is definite, meaning you are referring to something specific, use "the."
  • If a noun is indefinite, meaning you are referring to something unspecific, use "a, or an."
  • If a noun begins with a vowel sound, use "an."
  • If a noun begins with a consonant sound, use "a." 
  • If a noun is singular and countable, use "a" or "an."
  • If a noun is uncountable, singular, or plural, use "the."
  • Using an article is not always necessary if a noun refers to a place or time, type of transport, etc. 
  • If a mass or proper is used, it's not always necessary to use an article.