How To Use Articles – A, An and The
Level: Intermediate Reading Time: 6 minutes Category: Grammar – Articles
Do you sometimes get articles (a/an/the) mixed up in English?
A lot of English learners get really confused about when to use a, an or the.
If you want to speak with confidence, you need to understand how to use articles correctly.
Articles are the words: “a”, “an” and “the”
Today I will teach you everything you need to know about using articles like a native speaker!
I will also teach you how to avoid common mistakes people make with a, an and the.
What are articles?
The words “a”, “an” and “the” are called articles. They are determiners.
They are usually used with nouns and they tell the listener extra details.
Almost every noun you use will need an article in English.
A and An are called “indefinite articles” but the is called “definite article”
Why are Articles important?
The article you use can totally change the meaning of the sentence. Consider these examples.
- Did you eat a cake?
In this example, the speaker is not being specific about which cake we are talking about and they are asking if I ate any cake, anywhere in the world. It seems like a general conversation.
- Did you eat the cake?
This time, the speaker is talking about a specific cake that we both know about. Perhaps they are accusing me of eating their cake!
How to choose the correct article.
This is a very big problem for a lot of language learners. It can be very confusing when you are trying to decide which one you should use.
The answer depends on the situation and the word you are talking about.
Here are some things you need to think about.
- Is the noun countable or uncountable?
- Are you talking about one, or multiple?
- Are you being specific about which one?
- Does the listener know which one you mean?
Considering these points will help you decide which article you should use.
This graphic is very useful (so you might want to save it somewhere) but it is also a bit complicated.
Here are some easier rules you can use.
When you should use A/An:
First we will talk about the indefinite articles: “a” and “an”
Here are some rules that will help you remember when you need to use “a” or “an”.
You are talking about a singular countable noun.
When then noun is a singular, countable noun, you should use “a” or “an”.
- Have a nice evening.
- Can I borrow a pen?
- She never wears a hat.
People in the conversation don’t know which one.
If you are talking about something and the listener doesn’t know which one you are talking about, you should use “a” or “an”.
- I watched a movie last night.
- She took a nice picture of the lake.
- I just ate a sandwich for lunch.
You mention something for the first time.
When you talk about something for the first time in a conversation, you will usually use “a” or “an”.
- This morning, I bought a new book.
- Last year we stayed at an awesome hotel in Tokyo.
- I saw Steve this afternoon in a cafe.
YOu mention What kind of thing something is.
If you are describing what kind of thing something or someone is, you will use “a” or “an”.
- That’s a nice hat
- I’m an optimist.
- He has a long face.
You are talking about jobs/professions.
When you are talking about peoples jobs, you will usually use “a” or “an”.
- My sister is a teacher.
- I need to see a Doctor.
- She is a student but she wants to be a translator.
You are saying the name of something.
If you are telling someone the name of something, you can use “a” or “an”.
- That is called an insect
- A skyscraper is a very tall building.
- That is not a pond, it is a lake.
What’s the difference between A and An?
These words have the same meaning, but it depends on the noun which one you need to choose.
The noun starts with a vowel sound.
We use an when the first sound of the following noun is a vowel sound (you know… AEIOU)
- an envelope
- an apple
- an island
The Noun starts with a Consonant sound.
We use a when the first sound of the noun is a consonant (not a vowel).
- a car,
- a day
- a sandwich
You need to pay attention to the sound rather than the spelling.
Some words are spelled with a consonant, but sound like a vowel such as
- an hour,
- an MP3 player
- an FPS game
The same is also true with vowels that make consonant sounds.
- a university,
- a one year old
- a uniform.
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When to use The:
If you are not sure when you should use the definite article, here are some rules that you can use.
You are talking about a specific thing.
If you are talking about something specifically, you should use the.
- I live in the red house
- Her bag is the leather one.
- Do you like the flowers I bought for you?
You are talking about something for the second time.
When you mention something for the first time, you should use A/An, but after that, you should use the.
- I bought a sandwich. The sandwich is ham and cheese.
- We met in a restaurant. The restaurant was really fancy.
- Steve went to a party last night. The party was at his friends house.
Everyone knows which one you mean.
If it is obvious which thing you are talking about, you can use the.
- It’s a nice day. Let’s sit in the garden. (It is obvious I mean our garden)
- Can you open the window? (It is obvious I mean the window in this room)
- I am going to the bank. (It is obvious I mean the bank in our town that I always use)
You are using superlative adjectives.
In English, when we use a superlative adjective (for example: biggest, oldest, most expensive) we usually use the.
- This is the best restaurant in town.
- Mt. Fuji is the biggest mountain in Japan.
- That is the most expensive car I have ever seen.
you talk about unique nouns.
When there is only one of something, we usually use the.
- Humans landed on the moon in 1969.
- The environment is a big talking point these days.
- The earth revolves around the sun.
You are talking about certain buildings.
Sometimes, when we are talking about certain buildings, we almost always use the.
- My cousin is in the hospital at the moment.
- I went to the cinema last week.
- Let’s meet up in front of the station.
You are using a relative clause.
Relative clauses are really common in English, when we want to give more details. In those cases, you should use the.
- We are searching for the man who was wearing a red hat.
- I want to borrow the book that you told me about last week.
- Can you pass me the magazine that you bought yesterday.
How do you pronounce the?
There are two ways to pronounce the. The long way (/ði:/) or the short way (/ðə/) and choosing the correct one depends on the first sound of the word that follows it.
- We use the long version (/ði:/) when there is a vowel sound such as the escalator or the orange.
- We use the short version (/ðə/) when there is a consonant sound like the cheese or the book.
Do we always use articles?
Almost every time we use a noun, we should use a, an and the. However there are some cases where an article is not required.
You talk about institutions.
We don’t use an article when we are talking about institutions (for example: school, hospital, prison.) If we are talking about the idea in general, we can skip the article.
- He is in prison for a bank robbery. (not “He is in the prison”)
- Joanne is at school today. (not “Joanne is at the school”)
- You must not eat in class. (not “eat in the class”)
You use a possessive pronoun.
When you are talking about a noun that belongs to a person, we usually use a possessive pronoun rather than an article.
- Have you seen my phone? (not “Have you seen my the phone”)
- She lost her keys last week. (not “She lost her the keys”)
- You should come to our house for dinner. (not “You should come to our the house”)
You are talking about proper nouns.
In English, we have a lot of proper nouns. These are usually the names of things. In those cases, we skip the articles.
- I live in Japan (not “I live in the Japan.”)
- She took a picture of Big Ben (not “She took a picture of the Big Ben.”)
- Let’s go to New York next year! (not “Let’s go to the New York next year!”)
You are talking about plural nouns.
We also don’t use articles when we are talking about plural nouns in general.
- Cars are so expensive these days. (not “the cars”)
- I love buying pens and pencils. (not “the pens and the pencils”)
- Do you like animals? (not “Do you like the animals”)
You are talking about uncountable nouns:
When we are talking about uncountable nouns and we are talking in general, we skip the articles. We often use quantifiers like some or a lot of instead.
- We ate rice for dinner. (not “we ate the rice for dinner.”)
- There is water all over the kitchen floor! (not “There is the water all over the kitchen floor!”)
- We bought some bread from the bakery. (not “We bought the bread from the bakery/”)
Common Mistakes With Articles
Check out this video related to a common mistake I hear from my students.
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