Using articles correctly in English can be very difficult as there are a lot of rules to remember. There are three articles in English ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘the’ and sometimes no article Ø is needed.
1. The indefinite article – A or AN
Examples of use of indefinite articles: Do you have a pen? I need an umbrella.
2. The definite article – THE
Examples of use of definite articles: The boy lives at home. Here is the book I borrowed.
3. The zero article – this is used when no article is used, often shown as Ø in grammar books
Examples of zero articles: I like (Ø) dogs. (Ø) English exercises can be difficult.
Below are the common rules for when to use articles.
Articles – rule #1
We use ‘a’ or ‘an’ when there are many of something and you are talking generally about a single one.
Do you have a pen I can borrow? (it doesn’t matter which pen)
I would like an apple (it doesn’t matter which apple)
Articles – rule #2
We use ‘the’ when there is only one of the thing we are talking. It could be that it is unique, or it could that there is only one that you could logically be talking about.
The sun rises in the east. (it is unique – there is only one sun)
Have you fed the dog? (logically the people speaking must only have one dog)
Who’s the girl over there? (we identify the girl so now the speaker and listening know which one)
Articles – rule #3
We use ‘an’ in front of words that begin a vowel sound, and ‘a’ in front of words with a consonant sound.
- a potato
- a carrot
- an egg
- an apple
- an hour (the word hour sounds like ‘our’, so has a vowel sound to start)
- a university (the word university sounds like ‘you-niversity’ so has a consonant sound to start).
Articles – rule #4
We use ‘a’ or ‘an’ the first time we talk about something; we use ‘the’ for the second, third, fourth etc time we talk about it.
She has a dog and a cat. The dog is friendly but I don’t like the cat.
Articles – rule #5
With uncountable nouns, we often use no article (Ø).
- I like wine (not the wine or a wine)
- I listen to good advice (not the good advice or a good advice)
NOTE: Some nouns can be countable and uncountable.
- Sleep is important
- I am tired. I need a good sleep.
Articles – rule #6
‘The’ is used for a lot of expressions regarding the physical environment
- They live in the country.
- They went hiking in the mountains.
- The problem with Wellington is the wind.
- I love holidays by the seaside.
Articles – rule #7
The is used with superlatives.
- The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world.
- Lake Baikal in Russia is the deepest lake in the world.
- Elephants are the biggest animals in Africa.
Articles – rule #8
‘A’ or ‘an’ can be used when a single member is referred to but actually refers to the whole group.
- A doctor must be kind. (meaning all doctors / any doctor)
- A dog can make a very good pet. (meaning all dogs / any dogs)
Articles – rule #9
Sometimes we talk about things in general by using ‘the’ with a countable noun.
- The panda is an endangered species.
- Email is replacing the telephone as the most common way of communicating.
Articles – rule #10
Whether or not we use ‘the’ or Ø (no article) can sometimes depend on whether the speaker is describing a physical building or the purpose of a building.
- Jane is in Ø hospital for her operation. (No article here because we are referring to the purpose of a hospital – for surgery, health etc)
- Go straight along this street, turn left at the hospital and it’s just on the right (now we use the because we are NOT thinking about the purpose of the building, but a specific physical landmark).
- Other examples that follow this rule: Prison, school, church and university – almost any occasion where the name that describes the building also describes the function.
Articles – rule #11
The media also has similar rules. When we are referring to ‘a means of entertainment’ we use no article’ when we talk about the actual place or item, we use the.
- I’m going to the cinema (we are thinking of the actual place)
- Cinema is different from television in many ways (we are thinking of the types of media)
- The clock is on the television. (thinking of the actual tv set)
- There is too much violence on television. (thinking of the media)
Articles – rule #12
We use ‘the’ with:
- the names of seas (the Pacific, the Atlantic)
- mountain ranges (the Andes, the Himalayas)
- a few mountains when the name is translated (Das Matterhorn = The Matterhorn)
- countries made up of different islands (the West Indies)
- countries with state, union or republic (the People’s Republic of China, The United States)
- rivers (the Thames, the Mississippi)
- deserts (the Sahara, the Gobi)
- most hotels, cinemas, museums and art galleries (The Ritz, The Tate)
Articles – rule #13
We usually use Ø (no article) with:
- continents (Africa, Europe)
- countries (except countries made up of different islands)
- lakes (Lake Mead, Lake Placid)
- towns (Chester, Auckland)
- streets (Sunnyvale Road, Simmonds Street)
- most single mountains (Everest, Kilimanjaro)