A, an, and the are three of the smallest words in the English language — but that doesn’t mean they’re the least important. Using these three articles correctly might feel like second nature, but there are specific rules for using indefinite and definite articles — and it all depends on the noun they accompany.
An article is one of three small words that comes before a noun: a, an, and the. You’ll find one (or more) in nearly every sentence.
- I found a dollar.
- Let’s buy an iguana.
- Millie knows the answer.
Most people believe that there are eight main parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections. Because articles modify nouns, we often group them as a type of adjective.
Articles also fall into the category of determiners, like this or several, which introduce nouns.
Articles aren’t just sidekicks to the nouns in a sentence. There are two types of articles in English — indefinite articles (a and an) and definite articles (the) — and they each have important functions.
The indefinite articles a and an introduce general singular nouns, typically when the speaker doesn’t know or care which noun they’re talking about.
Use a when the next word begins with a consonant sound, and use an when the next word begins with a vowel sound.
- A man bought an apple. (Not a specific man or a specific apple)
- An angry lion growled at a surprised zoo visitor. (Not a specific lion or a specific visitor)
- A student visited a university. (Not a specific student or university — which begins with a “y” consonant sound)
When using plural or uncountable nouns (such as dogs or water), use plural determiners (many dogs, some water).
We use the for specific singular, plural, and uncountable nouns.
- The man bought the apple. (A specific man is buying a specific apple.)
- The angry lion growled at the surprised zoo visitor. (A specific lion is growling at a specific person.)
- The student visited the university. (A specific student is visiting a specific university)
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)
Can you decide which article completes each sentence?
- I made myself (a/an/the) sandwich.
- Hannah is (a/an/the) fascinating individual.
- Did you get (a/an/the) mail?
- Today is (a/an/the) historic day.
- Oliver wants (a/an/the) ice cream sundae for dessert.
- School will be over in (a/an/the) hour.
- Let’s sit down and solve (a/an/the) problem.
- I’d love to see (a/an/the) action movie tonight.
Did you choose the correct article for each sentence?
- I made myself a sandwich.
- Hannah is a fascinating individual.
- Did you get the mail?
- Today is a historic day.
- Oliver wants an ice cream sundae for dessert.
- School will be over in an hour.
- Let’s sit down and solve the problem.
- I’d love to see an action movie tonight.