Understanding Indefinite and Definite Articles (With Helpful Examples)

The English language has two indefinite articles (a, an) and one definite article (the). We use articles to indicate which noun we’re talking about. But there are specific rules for using indefinite and definite articles — and it all depends on the noun.

Indefinite and Definite Articles Examples Indefinite and Definite Articles Examples

When To Use an Indefinite Article

You’ll see the indefinite articles a and an before a singular, nonspecific noun. We use indefinite articles to indicate a general noun (“a car” or “an entire bottle”) when the speaker doesn’t know or care which noun they’re talking about.

Many languages assign articles to gendered nouns, such as Spanish (un, una) and French (un, une). But in English, we use a before words that begin with a consonant sound, and an before words that begin with a vowel sound. For example:

Consonant Sounds (use a)

Vowel Sounds (use an)

a man

an apple

a monkey

an elephant

a blue umbrella

an orange umbrella

a swimming pool

an ugly hat

Indefinite Article Exceptions

Keep in mind that this rule applies to consonant and vowel sounds, not the letters themselves. For example, even though words such as honor and hour begin with a consonant, the “h” is silent, so they actually begin with an “o” sound and use an (an honor, an hour). Similarly, words like unicorn and university that start with a “u” but actually begin with “y” sound use a (a unicorn, a university).

Plural Indefinite Nouns

With plural nouns, use a determiner like some, a few, many, most, or several instead of a or an. For example, if you’re talking about kittens but you’re not sure how many there are, you’d say “a few kittens” instead of “a kittens.” 

Use the determiner some for uncountable nouns like water or love — you can say “some water” or “some love” when the amount isn’t specific, or you can just use the noun by itself. The beginning sound of the word doesn’t matter when you’re choosing an indefinite determiner. For example:

Plural Countable Nouns (use a determiner)

Uncountable Nouns (use some)

some men

some milk

a few monkeys

some help

several umbrellas

some understanding

many swimming pools

some tea

most elephants

some air

When To Use a Definite Article

While languages such as Spanish and French have gendered definite articles (Spanish el and la, French le and la), English only has one for every definite noun: the. We use the for specific singular, plural and uncountable nouns. When you say “the car,” you’re talking about one specific car, and the listener understands which car you’re talking about. 

Unlike indefinite articles, you can use the for both singular and plural nouns. For example:

Singular Nouns

Plural Nouns

the man

the men

the monkey

the monkeys

the umbrella

the umbrellas

the swimming pool

the swimming pools

the elephant

the elephants

You should also use the before:

  • ordinal numbers, such as first or tenth (the first grandchild, the last table)
  • unique nouns where there is only one in existence (the Sistine Chapel, the sun)
  • the adjective only (the only sister, the only student)

When Not To Use a Definite Article

There are a few situations in which you shouldn’t use the. They include most proper nouns (you’d say Emily, not the Emily) and formal titles (President Lincoln, not the President Lincoln). Additionally, you shouldn’t use the when discussing:

  • languages (French, not the French, unless you’re discussing people instead of a language)
  • professions (engineering, not the engineering)
  • years (1995, not the 1995)
  • possessive nouns and pronouns (Harold’s dog, not Harold’s the dog)
  • meals (breakfast, not the breakfast)
  • holidays (Thanksgiving, not the Thanksgiving)
  • streets and other locations (I go to school, not I go to the school)
  • sports and activities (I play baseball, not I play the baseball)
  • when using an uncountable noun in a general way (Generosity is important, not The generosity is important)

Native English speakers already know these rules because the sounds incorrect in these cases. However, for those who are learning English, it’s helpful to know when an article is needed, when it’s not needed, and which article you should use.