The English language is insufficient without the proper use of special identifiers known as articles. These are words used before nouns and noun phrases, and using articles accurately determines whether you are a proficient English speaker or writer. Notably, there are three types of articles categorized into two classes: definite and indefinite.
This guide defines articles, when they are used and how to apply them.
An article is a word that identifies a noun or noun phrase by giving more information about it.1 In principle, articles are used before a noun, defining whether the use of such a noun is in general, specific, plural, or singular forms. There are only three articles in English, including ‘a,’ ‘an,’ and ‘the’. These are categorized as either definite or indefinite.
An article is considered definite when used to introduce specific noun phrases or nouns. It may be used in front of uncountable, countable, singular, and plural nouns. In the English language, ‘the’ is the only article under this category.1
An indefinite article is used with general, non-specific nouns or noun phrases. An indefinite article can also be applied when referring to a noun or noun phrase for the first time or when describing someone’s profession.2 The English language has two indefinite article types; ‘a’ and ‘an.’
While indefinite articles are applied the same way, the article ‘an’ is used before a vowel and the article ‘a’ before a consonant.
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Avoid using articles with plural nouns
An article is generally unnecessary when referring to plural nouns, especially countable plural nouns applied in a general sense. If you are using plural nouns, you can as well go ahead without applying any article.
The surveys were undertaken to explain specific facts
I saw the monkeys in the park
He did an embarrassing things on his birthday
She has a pens in her bag
Surveys were undertaken to explain specific facts
I saw monkeys in the park
He did embarrassing things on his birthday
She has pens in her bag
The exception is that you can use an article with plural nouns only when such nouns are applied in a more specific sense.
Don’t use indefinite articles with noncountable nouns
An uncountable noun is anything that is seen or perceived as a unit or whole and cannot be divided into smaller elements. Examples of noncountable nouns include sugar, knowledge, love, air, water, and beauty.
You cannot use an indefinite article with noncountable nouns since it is impossible to have such items in singular forms. For instance, you cannot have one piece of water or air as there is no measure of what such a unit can be equated to.
If you want to use an article with a noncountable noun, the best way is to have the noncountable noun precede a countable noun. Alternatively, you can use a countable noun in place of the noncountable noun.
|Incorrect ✘||Correct ✓|
|A wisdom was shared||A wisdom lesson was shared
An insight was shared
|A love is a beautiful thing||A love story is a beautiful thing
An affection is a beautiful thing
Using articles with singular countable nouns
Generally, singular countable nouns cannot be used without determiners.3 Examples of singular countable nouns include teacher, test, lake, and book. If you are not using a demonstrative or possessive determiner, then you will need to apply an article before nouns and noun phrases.
|Incorrect ✘||Correct ✓|
|During the graduation, teacher was applauded||During the graduation, the teacher was applauded
During the graduation, a teacher was applauded
During the graduation, our teacher was applauded
During the graduation, this teacher was applauded
|I perused through book before the test||I perused through the book before the test
I perused through my book before the test
I perused through this book before the test
I perused through a book before the test
Indefinite articles with acronyms – ‘A’ and ‘An’
Generally, you need article ‘a’ and ‘an’ before nouns starting with consonants and vowels, respectively. This is also true when it comes to acronyms. These are words formed from the first letters of a collection of other words and pronounced singly.
To determine whether to use the article ‘a’ or ‘an’ before an acronym, you will first need to establish how such an acronym should be pronounced.
Definite articles with acronyms
When applying the definite article ‘the’ in reference to acronyms relating to countries or organizations, you must follow the special guidelines created for such use.3 The general determiner is whether the acronym in question is read out as a single word or a letter-by-letter word.
Countries and organizations with acronyms read out letter by letter are accompanied with the article ‘the.’
On the other hand, acronyms read out as single words are not to be used with the article ‘the.’
Articles with countries
The use of an article is not necessary when referring to most countries. However, in specific circumstances, you may be required to add an article before a country as follows:
|When the name of the country is in plural or holds a plural phrase or word||The Philippines, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, the Bahamas, the United States of America|
|When a common noun is used to define the country’s name. Such nouns include State, Republic, Kingdom, or Federation||The Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom, the United Statee, the Czech Republic|
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Definite articles are used before a specific noun or noun phrase. On the other hand, an indefinite article is used with non-specific or general nouns.
In English, there are only three types of articles. ‘a’ and ‘an’ are classified as indefinite articles, while the article ‘the’ falls under the definite article category.
The general rule in the application of indefinite articles is that ‘a’ should precede a noun or noun phrase beginning with a consonant. Consequently, the article ‘an’ should be used before nouns or noun phrases starting with a vowel.
It is difficult to define when an article should be omitted when using the English language. However, in general, you can omit an article when using possessive adjectives, when noun phrases are used as general topics, and when referring to countries without the ‘lands,’ ‘kingdom,’ and ‘states’ phrases.
1 Wallstreetenglish.com. “The Complete Guide to Definite and Indefinite Articles.“ Accessed November 16, 2022. https://www.wallstreetenglish.com/exercises/the-complete-guide-to-definite-and-indefinite-articles.
2 Writing Explained. “What are Definite, Indefinite Articles? Definition, Examples of English Article.” Accessed November 16, 2022. https://writingexplained.org/grammar-dictionary/definite-indefinite-articles.
3 English Club. “Definite Article and Indefinite Article.” Accessed November 16, 2022. https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/determiners-articles.htm.