Articles in English Grammar

What is an article?

An article is a word that is used to indicate that a noun is a noun without describing it. For example, in the sentence Nick bought a dog, the article a indicates that the word dog is a noun. Articles can also modify anything that acts as a noun, such as a pronoun or a noun phrase.

Often, a sentence needs an article before a noun in order to make grammatical sense. For example,

 Incorrect: I have box.
✅ Correct: I have a box.

 Incorrect: She opened door.
✅ Correct: She opened the door.

❌ Incorrect: French is spoken by French.
✅ Correct: French is spoken by the French.

⚡️Article examples

In English, there are only three articles. They are:

  • the
  • a
  • an

The following sentences show examples of how we use articles in sentences:

  • The zoo has an elephant enclosure.
  • I have a younger brother and an older sister.
  • The ancient Romans built the Coliseum.
  • Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?

Types of articles

We can separate the articles into two different types.

Definite articles

In English, the only definite article is the word the. A definite article has several roles that it performs.

1. A definite article is used to refer to unique things or groups. A definite article can indicate that something is unique and only one of it exists.

  • She gazed at the moon. (The Earth only has one moon)
  • We sailed on the Pacific Ocean. (There is only one body of water named Pacific Ocean.)

2. A definite article is used to refer to specific things that both the speaker and the listener know the identity of.

  • Harold went to the store. (Both the speaker and the listener know specifically which store Harold went to.)
  • The kids are playing outside. (Both the speaker and listener know the identity of the kids.)

In writing and speech, the word the is typically used after the speaker or writer first introduces a thing that they are talking about. The word the then references back to this same thing. For example,

  • We saw birds by the lake. The birds were building nests. (The word the indicates that the birds in the second sentence are the same birds mentioned in the first sentence.)

 

Indefinite articles

In English, there are two indefinite articlesa and anA is used before consonants or consonant sounds, and an is used before vowels or vowel sounds. Indefinite articles are basically the reverse of definite articles and have several different roles.

1. Indefinite articles are used to refer to things that aren’t unique.

  • Raquel is a doctor. (Raquel is just one of the many doctors in the world.)
  • France is a country. (France is one of many countries.)

2. Indefinite articles are used to refer to nonspecific things.

  • I am looking for a job. (I am not looking for a specific job.)
  • Please hand me an envelope. (You can hand me any envelope you can find.)

In this same sense, indefinite articles are often used to refer to something as an idea or concept.

  • Going camping is a fun experience. (This sentence says that the act of “going camping” is an example of something that can be described as “fun experience.”)

Did you know that all articles are determiners, but what exactly is a determiner? Find out here.

3. Indefinite articles are used to refer to things that the speaker and listener don’t know the identity of.

  • Vick has a dog. (We know Vick owns a dog, but we don’t know anything about it.)
  • A woman is standing outside. (We don’t know who the woman is.)

In writing and speech, indefinite articles are often used to introduce the first mention of a noun. Once the noun has been introduced, it is then possible to use a definite article.

  • A truck drove past. The truck was huge. (The noun truck is introduced with the definite article a. After it is introduced, we can use the to refer back to the same truck.)

Unlike definite articles, it is considered grammatically incorrect to use indefinite articles with plural nouns.

✅ Correct: I have a cat.
❌ Incorrect: I have a cats.

Nouns that don’t take articles

Some nouns do not take articles. Unfortunately, there is no general rule for when this happens, and you’ll just need to learn these instances as you encounter them. Some common types of nouns that don’t typically use articles include:

  • Languages: I studied Russian. She speaks Spanish and Portuguese.
  • Sports: He plays football. We watched basketball on TV.
  • School subjects: She loves math. He is bad at chemistry.
  • Names: Meghan lives with Ken. I gave a biscuit to Princess, my poodle.
  • Abstract nouns: She has impressive speed. The professor gave a lecture on communism.

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