Definite and Indefinite Articles

One of the first things we learn in English is how to use ‘a, an, the’ – the articles, but that doesn’t mean that we understand it that well. In fact, even my advanced students tell me all the time that they still don’t quite understand when to use ‘a/an’ and when to use ‘the’. I don’t blame them – it’s tricky!

So let’s start with the basics, shall we?

Using ‘the’

In English ‘the’ is known as the definite article. The way I like to teach my students how to use this, is by telling them that ‘the’ is for anything specific.

For example, let’s look at the uses of ‘the’ and we’ll see that each one is referring to something specific, rather than general.

Uses of ‘the’:

We use ‘the’ when there is ONE of something, and that includes one group of something:

The book (a specific book)

The cup of coffee (not just any coffee – a specific one)

The United States of America (a group of states and there is only ONE united states of America – we use ‘the’ for unions of countries and states, but not for country names like Russia)

The women of Saudi Arabia (because we are only talking specifically about Saudi women here, not all women)

The Taj Mahal (there is only one Taj Mahal)

The Great Lakes, the Gulf Stream

The North/South (we use ‘the’ for directions like this, after all – there is only ONE north and ONE south)

Are you starting to see a pattern here?

Some students think that ‘the’ is for one of something and that’s true – but remember that there can be ONE group of something, so it’s okay to say ‘the children’ if you’re talking about a specific set of children.

We don’t use ‘the’, or ‘a’ for that matter, with names. For example, would you point to your friend and say, ‘Oh look, there’s the Sarah!’ No – that just sounds ridiculous, and so we don’t use articles with any names. For example, we would say:

‘I studied at the university’ – because there is no name here, but we would say, ‘I studied at King Saud University’ because now we have a name. We don’t use ‘the’ anymore.

We also don’t use ‘the’ for common expressions, because they are considered general. Let me show you what I mean:

‘I got up and went to work.’

‘I came back from school early.’

‘I travelled to work by car.’

‘I went home.’

We don’t say ‘the work’ or ‘the school’ or ‘the car’, and we definitely don’t say ‘the home’ – which is a common mistake. These are such common expressions, used all the time, that they don’t need an article. But this is tricky because as non-English speakers, it will be some time before you know what are, and are not, common expressions for us. The best advice here is to learn and then practice in speaking.

Using ‘a/an’

Let’s get the ‘an’ rule out of the way first, for those of you who aren’t quite sure of this one.

We use ‘an’ before words that begin with a vowel: a, e, i, o, u

For example:

An apple

An egg

An Indian curry

An octopus

An undertaker

Why do we do this? Because it simply rolls off the tongue better. In English, we like words to sound smooth and easy. Try saying ‘A apple’ and see how it sounds. Weird, right? Like there’s a break in your speaking. Whereas, when you say ‘an apple’, it sounds smoother and it’s just easier to say.

One important thing to note here – we use ‘an’ even when the sound of the word is like a vowel, but ISN’T a vowel. For instance,

‘An hour’ – ‘h’ is not a vowel, but because it’s silent in this word, it sounds like we are saying ‘our’ and that starts  with ‘o’. So, because it makes the word sound smoother,  we use ‘an’.

Likewise, let’s have a look at this example,

‘A university’ – ‘u’ is a vowel and this word starts therefore with a vowel but it actually sounds like ‘you’ so it’s easy to say and doesn’t require ‘an’.

Now for the uses of ‘a’:

“A” and “an” signal that the noun modified is indefinite, referring to any member of a group. When we use ‘a’ it also means ONE of something, but this time it’s general. Let’s look at some examples:

‘I’d like to visit a park.’

The speaker isn’t suggesting a specific park, but is saying she wants to go to ANY park – it’s general.

‘Do you want an apple?’

Meaning one apple out of a group of apples, or just any apple. The speaker is not pointing to one specific apple. If he was pointing to one in particular, he would say ‘the’.

‘I saw a tiger at the zoo.’

Here we are using ‘a’ because we don’t mean a specific tiger. There are probably many tigers at the zoo. However, let’s compare it to:

‘I saw the tiger at the zoo.’

This means that the speaker is talking about a SPECIFIC tiger, and that the person he or she is talking to, knows exactly which tiger. Let’s imagine that there is a special tiger, bigger than all the other tigers, which everybody wants to go and visit. I visit that tiger and then I tell my friends, ‘I saw the tiger!’ – that means that they know exactly which one I mean.

Now, here’s where articles get a little more challenging. Your teacher might tell you that you should always use an article before a noun in your writing, and your speaking, but actually that’s not strictly true. Sometimes, we don’t use any article with special types of nouns.

Abstract Nouns

What we talked about above, for example apples and books and countries – they are all known as concrete nouns. You can see them, or touch them, or put your feet on them, or pick them up – you get the general idea.

But there are other types of nouns known as abstract nouns. Abstract means ‘existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence’. An example will make this much easier to understand:

Justice, love, hate, fear, honesty, bravery, knowledge, trust, friendship, truth, childhood, poverty, kindness…

All of these are words that you can’t exactly pick up off the table can you? However, we know that they are real because we feel them in ourselves and we know that they are true and we see these things in other people.

These are therefore, in contrast to concrete nouns, known as abstract nouns. With abstract nouns, we don’t use an article – the word is simply left alone. Take a look:

‘Most of his childhood was spent playing football.’

‘If we have the right attitude, then we can solve our problems.’

Justice was done today. The man went to prison.’

Love is a wonderful thing.’

We are using abstract nouns here, so we don’t need any articles.

There is no easy way to learn whether nouns are abstract or concrete, other than doing the ‘Can I touch or see it’ test. If you can’t touch it or see it, chances are that it’s abstract. These nouns need to be learned and memorized, and if you can start using them correctly in writing, without articles, you’ll notice a big improvement and you’ll sound far more advanced in your use of English. This is especially helpful for tests like IELTS.

Here’s a list of abstract nouns to get you started:

Now it’s time for a little exercise to see how much you’ve understood so far. See if you can fill in the blanks with the correct article (a, an, the) or use a – if there should be no article.

Insert a, an, the,  – 

  1. She doesn’t like _________ bananas.
  2. He has _________ shower every morning.
  3. We had _________ romantic dinner cruise on ________ Seine in _________ Paris.
  4. Make _________ love, not _________ war.
  5. My father is ________ lawyer and my mum is ________ doctor.
  6. He is afraid of _________ death.
  7. What does _________ police officer do all day?
  8. Do you like travelling by ___________ plane or not?
  9. What is _________ student sitting next to you wearing?
  10. When was __________ last time you went to the cinema?

Now, are you ready to check your answers? Scroll down to see how you got on with the exercise. Remember that learning how to use articles correctly actually takes a lot of time and practice, and even IELTS students still make many mistakes! But if you practice enough, it’ll soon become second nature to you, as we say J

  1. She doesn’t like bananas.
  2. He has a shower every morning.
  3. We had a romantic dinner cruise on the Seine in Paris.
  4. Make love, not war.
  5. My father is a lawyer and my mum is a doctor.
  6. He is afraid of death.
  7. What does a police officer do all day?
  8. Do you like travelling by plane or not?
  9. What is the student sitting next to you wearing?
  10. When was the last time you went to the cinema?

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