Articles (a, an, and the) are words that indicate nouns and specify their application. Different articles are used depending on whether a noun is countable or noncountable, definite or indefinite, first mention or subsequent mention, and general or specific.
Countable vs. Noncountable
Can the noun be counted?
A and an are used if the noun modified can be counted.
- She bought a cookie. (The use of a here indicates that she bought only one cookie.)
- I ate a piece of cake.
- They saw an eagle.
The is used when the noun cannot be counted.
- I bought the milk. (How many milks did you buy? The question doesn't make any sense because milk is noncountable. Therefore, use the.)
- I ate the soup.
- We saw the juice spill.
Indefinite Articles: a and an (and some)
Can the noun refer to any member of a group?
A and an are used if the noun modified is indefinite, which means that the noun can refer to any member of a group. If the indefinite noun is singular, use a or an. If the indefinite noun is plural, use some. The rule is:
- I saw a boy.
- He picked an apple.
- I met some girls.
Additionally, use indefinite articles to indicate membership in a profession, nationality, or religion.
- I am a cashier.
- Eric is a German.
- He is a Hindu.
Definite Article: the
Does the noun refer to a specific member of a group?
The is used if the noun modified is definite, which means that the noun refers to a specific member of a group. Compare the indefinite and definite articles in the following pairs:
- A chair (any chair)
- The chair (that specific chair)
- An oven (any oven)
- The oven (that specific oven)
The is used with both singular and plural nouns:
- The chair, the oven
- The chairs, the ovens
The is used with noncountable nouns that are made more specific by a limiting modifying phrase or clause:
- The energy that filled the room was electric.
- The knowledge that she gained is incredibly valuable.
The is not used with noncountable nouns that refer to something generally:
- [no article] Knowledge is powerful.
- She had lots of [no article] energy.
* Geographical uses of the
Do not use the before:
- Names of countries (Japan, Bolivia, Canada), except the Netherlands and the US
- Names of cities, towns, or states (Cleveland, Paris)
- Names of streets (High St., Pacemont Rd.)
- Names of lakes and bays (Lake Huron, Lake Erie), except with a group of lakes like the Great Lakes
- Names of mountains (Mount Kilimanjaro), except with ranges of mountains like the Andes or the Rockies or unusual names like the Matterhorn
- Names of continents (North America, Asia)
- Names of islands except with island chains like the Aleutians, the Hebrides, or the Canary Islands
Do use the before:
- Names of rivers, oceans, and seas (the Nile, the Pacific, the Sea of Japan)
- Points on the globe (the Equator, the North Pole)
- Geographical areas (the North, the Middle East)
- Deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas (the Sahara, the Persian Gulf, the Black Forest, the Iberian Peninsula)
First vs. Subsequent Mention
Is this the first time the noun has been mentioned in the piece of writing?
A or an is used to introduce a noun when it is mentioned for the first time in a piece of writing. The is used afterward each time you mention that same noun, as you are now referring to a specific, previously-mentioned noun.
- I gave a presentation on how to make an apple pie to the home economics class. The presentation was a huge success.
Note: There is and there are can be used to introduce an indefinite noun at the beginning of a paragraph or essay.
General vs. Specific
Is the noun general or specific?
Sometimes, the noun refers to the whole class to which individual nouns belong. The usage of articles with these nouns is called generic. While the generic article looks like the indefinite article, the rules that govern them are different. The indefinite article refers to any one member of a group, while the generic article refers to all members of a group.
- A dog is an excellent companion. (indefinite article: any individual dog)
- The dog is a loyal and affectionate pet. (generic article: all dogs - dog as a generic category)
The omission of articles also expresses a generic (or general) meaning:
- No article with a plural noun: Dogs are loyal and affectionate. (all dogs)
- No article with a noncountable noun: Freedom is a valuable right. (any kind of freedom)
Omission of Articles
Some nouns don't take any article. Some examples of these nouns are:
- Names of languages and nationalities
- Names of sports
- Names of academic subjects
- Computer science