Knowing what articles are and when to use them in English can be difficult for language learners to pick up. Especially considering that in some situations there is no article at all.

But don’t worry, we’re here to help.

In English there are three articles: a, an, and the. Today we’re going to look at what these are, the differences between them and when to use them – or not, in some cases.

Let’s go!

 

What is an article?

 

Articles are a type of determiner. They function like adjectives, as they modify the noun in the sentence. The only articles in English are ‘the’ and ‘a/an’. Yet, the tricky part is that we use them differently – and sometimes not at all.

We call ‘the’ the definite article and ‘a/an’ the indefinite article.

 

When to use a/an, the and no article

 

So when do we use articles in English? We’re going to show you some explanations, examples and activities to practise so that by the time you finish reading, you’ll be an articles pro!

 

Definite and indefinite articles

1_OH How to use articles (a, an, the) in English

We use ‘the’ before a noun when:

  • referring to something specific
  • there is only one of something (e.g. the cathedral)
  • the noun has been mentioned before
 

We use ‘a/an’ before a noun when:

  • referring to something in general
  • mentioning something for the first time
  • describing someone’s profession (eg. I am a teacher)
 

Compare these two sentences:

Let’s watch the TV series that we love (a specific TV series that is familiar to us or that we know about.)

Let’s watch a TV series after dinner (we don’t have a specific TV series in mind – it could be any series.)

It’s important to remember that we use ‘a’ and ‘an’ differently: ‘a’ comes before a noun beginning with a consonant sound and ‘an’ comes before a noun beginning with a vowel sound. For example:

2_OH How to use articles (a, an, the) in English

If you were observant, you may be wondering why ‘hotel’ and ‘hour’ don’t use the same indefinite article, even though they both start with ‘h’. Remember, we need to look at the starting sound, not letter, and since ‘hour’ is pronounced with a silent ‘h’, it starts with a vowel sound – which means you need ‘an’.

Here are some more examples of definite and indefinite articles:

  • Somebody call a policeman!
  • Did you see the film that was on Channel 4 last night?
  • Would you like a glass of milk?
  • I love to swim in the ocean.
  • The announcement lasted for 10 minutes.
 

Learn more about the basics of definite and indefinite articles in this video:

 

No article

We never use a/an with uncountable nouns. However, ‘the’ is sometimes used with uncountable nouns in the same way it is used with plural countable nouns. This is when we want to refer to a specific object, group, or idea.

For example:

  • Electricity has become more expensive recently.
  • Can you pass me the sugar please?
 

It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with countable and uncountable nouns so you can make the right choice of article. See the table below for examples.

3_OH How to use articles (a, an, the) in English

However, we use ‘no article’ in other situations without grammatical rules. In this case, it’s something you have to remember.

Check out some of the following situations for knowing where you must leave out the article.

Use ‘no article’ before:

  • Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, Russian (unless referring to the population of the place e.g. ‘The Italians are known for their delicious food.’).
  • Names of sports: cricket, baseball.
  • Names of subjects: Art, Mathematics.
 

Geographical places

When it comes to geographical places, such as countries or continents, we use ‘the’ in some cases, and no article in others. Unfortunately, there aren’t any rules to help you here – you just have to familiarise yourself with the ones that need ‘the’ or not.

Do NOT use ‘the’ before:

  • Lakes: Lake Geneva, Lake Placids
  • Mountains: Mount Fuji, Mount Everest.
  • Continents: Europe, Asia.
  • Most countries: England, Sweden.
  • Counties/states/provinces/regions: Oxfordshire, Catalunya, California.
  • Cities, towns, villages: London, Paris.
  • Islands: Bali, Hawaii.
  • Street names: Main Street, 5th Avenue.
 

Use ‘the’ before:

  • Rivers: The Nile, The Mississippi.
  • Mountain ranges: The Andes, The Pyrenees.
  • Deserts: The Sahara, The Atacama.
  • Oceans and seas: The Pacific, The Mediterranean.
  • Groups of islands: The Maldives, The Seychelles.
  • Some countries: The USA, The Netherlands.
  • Points on the globe: The Equator, The North Pole.
  • Geographical areas: The Middle East, The West.
 

Check out some of the most common mistakes with articles in this video:

 

Practice

 

Now you know the grammar, here’s a short test for you to test your knowledge. Find the answers at the end of the blog – don’t peek!

Answer the questions with: ‘a/an’, ‘the’ or ‘no article’.

1. I love going on holiday to ____ Maldives.

2. Did you watch ____ the Mel Gibson film on TV last night?

3. Do you still live in ____ Bristol?

4. I’ve had ____ terrible headache all day.

5. The book is about someone who lives on ____ small island.

6. She lives in ____ Scotland now, but is from ____ Netherlands.

7. They speak ____ Chinese.

8. I’d love to go sailing along ____ Ganges river.

9. Who is that woman in ____ photograph?

10. Can I have _____ sugar in my coffee please?

 

More grammar lessons

 

Congratulations – now you’re an articles expert! But it doesn’t have to stop here. We’ve got plenty more grammar lessons for you to check out. Try these:

4 present tenses and how to use them

4 past tenses and when to use them

4 future tenses and how to use them

4 conditionals and when to use them

4 types of modal verbs

 

Quiz answers

 

1. the

2. the

3. no article

4. a

5. a

6. no article, the

7. no article

8. the

9. the

10. no article

 

Want more help with your grammar? Sign up for one of our courses!

Glossary for Language Learners

 

Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.

Pick up (pv): obtain, acquire, or learn something in an informal way.

Tricky (adj): difficult.

Leave out (pv): fail to include something.

Peek (v): look quickly.

Check out (pv): look at or take notice of someone or something.

pv = phrasal verb

v = verb

adj = adjective

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