What is an article?
An article is a word that modifies or describes the Noun. It is used before the noun to show whether it refers to something specific or not. So, in a way, articles can also be described as a type of adjectives as they also tell us something about the nouns, like adjectives.
Types of Articles
There are two types of Articles in the English language. They are as follows:
Definite article: Definite means to be clear, exact or obvious about something. It is called definite because it is used in relation to a particular thing or person. “The” is the definite article in English, which is used to refer to particular nouns, the identities of which are known. The definite article indicates that the noun is specific. The speaker talks about a particular thing. For example:
The cat sat on the couch.
The dog attacked me and ran away.
Notice how the reference is not left indefinite in both the sentences. It is clear that a particular cat sat on the couch in the first sentence and a specific dog that attacked the speaker is being spoken about in the second example.
Indefinite articles: Indefinite means something which is not clear, obvious or exact. They are called indefinite because the identity of the thing or person being spoken about is left unclear or indefinite. The indefinite article indicates that the noun is not someone or something in particular. The speaker talks about any one of that type of things. The indefinite articles in English are “a” and “an.” For example:
Do you have a pencil?
I want to have an apple.
Notice how the speaker is not asking for a particular pencil or apple, but any pencil or apple in the above sentences.
Difference between “A” and “An”
Indefinite articles ‘a/an’ are used as follows:
‘A’ is used before a word beginning with a consonant sound. Consonant letters in the English alphabet are B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M,N, P, Q, R, S, T, V,W, X,Y, Z.
For example: A boy, a cat, a dog, a fight, a gym, a horse, a joke, a kite, a lion, a mirror, a noise, a pin, a quilt, etc.
‘An’ is used before a word beginning with a vowel sound. Vowel letters in the English alphabet are A, E, I, O, U.
For example: An apple, an elephant, an idiot, an orange, an umbrella, etc.
Note here that the usage is on the basis of sound and not only the letter the word starts with.
“An honest man”
“A one eyed dog”
Do these seem wrong to you?
They’re not and the reason is that the ‘usage is on the basis of sound’. The words ‘hour’ and ‘honest’ both begin with a vowel sound, as the consonant ‘h’ is not pronounced. Similarly, the word ‘one’ begins with the consonant sound of ‘w’ and hence is written as ‘a one eyed dog’, not ‘an one eyed dog’.
Also, remember that we use “a” and “an” only before a singular noun. We can’t use “a” and “an” before a plural noun. For example:
A book – correct
A books – incorrect
An egg – correct
An eggs – incorrect
Tips to remember the differences in a nutshell
Ø a + singular noun beginning with a consonant: a bag; a pen, etc.
Ø an + singular noun beginning with a vowel: an egg; an orphan, etc.
Ø a + singular noun beginning with a consonant sound: a user (sounds like ‘yoo-zer,’ i.e., gives a ‘y’ sound, so ‘a’ is used); a university; a European, etc.
Ø an + nouns starting with silent “h”: an hour; an honest man, etc.
These rules also apply in Acronyms.
He is a DU (Delhi University) student.
He is an IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) graduate.
The rule also applies when acronyms start with consonant letters but have vowel sounds.
She is an MBA (Master of Business Administration).
When/If the noun is modified by an adjective, the choice between a and an depends on the initial sound of the adjective that immediately follows the article.
a beautiful umbrella
an unusual situation
a European country (pronounced as ‘yer-o-pi-an,’ i.e., sounds like consonant ‘y’)
A/An is used to indicate membership in a group.
- I am a journalist. (I am a member of a large group of professionals known as journalists.)
- She is an Indian. (She is a member of the people from India, known as Indians.)
Difference between “A” and “The”
“The”, as mentioned earlier, is used to give information about particular or known nouns. These are usually things that have been mentioned before or that the listener is familiar with. On the other hand, “A” or “an” is used to talk about things which are not particular. Usually, these are things that haven’t been mentioned before or that the listener is unfamiliar with.
For example, study these sentences:
I went to see a tattoo artist.
The tattoo artist has given me an appointment next week.
It is clear that in the first sentence, the speaker did not go to see a particular tattoo artist. He/she went to see any tattoo artist and was speaking to a friend about the same. The tattoo artist in this case has either not been mentioned before or is not that important, and therefore their identity is unknown.
Whereas in the second sentence, the speaker refers to the tattoo artist that had already been mentioned before. The identity is already known, therefore, “the” has been used to refer the tattoo artist.
Usage of ‘the’
Let’s study the different cases where ‘the’ can or cannot be used.
Count and Noncount Nouns
The can either be used with noncount nouns or the article can be omitted entirely. For example:
She liked to sail over the water. Here, some specific body of water is being talked about.
She liked to sail over water. Here, no particular water is being talked about. It can refer to any water.
‘A’/’An’ can be used only with single count nouns.
I need a bottle of juice.
I need an eraser.
Use of ‘the’ in case of geography
There are some specific rules for using ‘the’ with geographical nouns.
Do not use ‘the’ before:
Ø names of most countries/territories: India, Brazil, Canada; however, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the United States
Ø names of cities, towns, or states: Toronto, Delhi, Sao Paolo
Ø names of streets: Callowhill Drive, Park Avenue
Ø names of lakes and bays: Lake Michigan, Lake Ontario; except while referring to a group of lakes – the Great Lakes
Ø names of mountains: Mount Everest, Mount Fuji except with ranges of mountains like the Andes or the Rockies or unusual names like the Matterhorn
Ø names of continents: Asia, Europe
Ø names of islands (Easter Island, Maui, Key West) except with island chains like the Andaman Islands, the Canary Islands
Use ‘the’ before:
Ø names of rivers, oceans and seas: the Ganga, the India Ocean
Ø points on the globe: the Equator, the South Pole
Ø geographical areas: the South East, the Asia Pacific
Ø deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas: the Kalahari, the Sunderbans
Where articles are not used?
The usage of articles is one of the most confusing things to remember for many English learners. It is not always necessary to use articles everywhere. Our tip is to remember the cases where articles should not be used.
Do not use articles:
Ø When you talk about things in general.
For example: I like birds.
Here, the speaker wants to imply that he/she likes any bird in general, and not a specific type of a bird.
Ø When talking about plural count nouns.
For example: Dogs make great pets.
Here, you are not talking about one specific dog or one specific pet; you are talking about all dogs in general.
Ø When talking about non-count nouns.
For example: I love music.
Here, the speaker is saying that he enjoys music, in general – not any specific kind of music or song.
Ø When talking about specific days or holidays, geography, companies, languages.
For example: I have bought candles for Diwali.
Here, the speaker is talking about the candles he has bought to use on the day of Diwali.
Ø When talking about Geography.
Articles are not used before countries, states, cities, towns, continents, single lakes, single mountains, etc.
For example: I live in Canada.
Mt. Rosa is part of the Alps mountain range.
Here, Mt. Rosa is one mountain, whereas The Alps refer to a group of mountains.
The United Arab Emirates, The Russian Federation”, The People’s Republic of China, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, The Dominion of Canada, etc., all contain articles because of the usage of common nouns such as kingdom, republic, states, united, dominion, emirates, etc.
The Netherlands, the Philippines, The Bahamas, The Maldives, etc. have ‘the’ before them due to the plural nature of the names of the countries.
The Ukraine, the Sudan, etc. are exceptions to all of these rules. It is perhaps, due to common use, or at least previous common use. There have been historical uses of articles before names of countries that don’t fit into either category.
Ø When you talk about companies.
For example: Steve Jobs founded Apple.
I use Facebook every day.
Here, the speaker is referring to companies like Apple and Facebook.
Ø When you talk about languages.
For example: I speak Hindi.
Here, the speaker is talking about the language Hindi.
Ø When you talk about places, locations, streets.
For example: My house is located on Callowhill Drive.
I left my pen at home.
Here, a street called Callowhill Drive and speaker’s home are being talked about.
However, there are specific places that do need the use an article. For example:
the bank, the hospital, the post office, the airport, the train station, the bus stop, etc.
Ø When you talk about sports and physical activities.
For example: I love to play cricket.
She enjoys dancing.
Here, cricket and dancing is being talked about.
Ø When there is a noun + number
For example: She is staying at the Hilton hotel in room 127.
The train to Montreal leaves from platform 9.
Here, the nouns are followed by numbers; hence, no article is used.
Ø When talking about academic subjects.
For example: I hate attending Mathematics classes.
Here, the mathematic classes are being discussed.
A table to remember when or when not to use Articles
‘A’/ ‘An’ is used
When mentioning something for the first time.
I went for a movie.
When talking about something which belongs to a set of the same thing.
This is a pen.
When talking about someone who belongs to a certain group.
She is an engineer.
When talking about a certain kind of a thing.
I’ve have made a great movie.
When wanting to say that someone is a certain kind of person.
She is a shy girl.
‘The’ is used
When talking about a particular thing.
The movie that I went for was fantastic.
When talking about something that you are sure of.
I cleared the interview.
When there is only one such thing.
I don’t like to go out in the sun.
No article is used
When talking about
something in general.
Swimming is a great physical activity.
When talking about cities,
countries, streets, sports, etc.
We visited France.
We watched soccer together.