If the English language has only one thing going for it in terms of simplicity (and it may only have this one thing), it's that its definite and indefinite articles combined only add up to four. The pronunciation, the spelling and the hundreds of irregular verbs may not make any sense at all, but at least we only have four articles where other languages can have more than 10.
Additionally, English has just one definite article, which helps to make up for the fact that we have to switch the words in a sentence around whenever we want to ask a question. Right?
What Is an Article?
An article tells you if a noun is specific or general. Several possible words can join together with a noun to create a noun phrase. A noun phrase is made up of the noun and all the other words that go with it. An article (a, an, some, the) gives information about the noun in the noun phrase. It can:
- Tell us how many there are; if the article is “a” or “an,” we know there's only one.
- Tell us whether the noun in question is a specific one (“the”) or just one in general
- Signal to a reader or listener that a noun is just being introduced or that it's one he's already seen in a story
Look at the following sentence:
The quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
In addition to using all the letters of the alphabet, this sentence has two noun phrases:
- the quick, brown fox
- the lazy dog
Both phrases include a noun (fox, dog), at least one adjective (quick, brown, lazy) and an article (the). Noun phrases can also include numbers, possessive adjectives or demonstratives (this, that, these, those).
Now that we know a little bit about what articles do, let's look at definite and indefinite articles individually to see which does what.
English has three indefinite articles: two for singular nouns and one for plural and uncountable nouns.
For singular nouns, the indefinite articles are “a” and “an.” In other languages, when choosing which indefinite article to use, you may have to think about the gender of the noun, its spelling and the spelling of any adjectives that come before it. In English, you only have to listen to the very next word. If it begins with a vowel sound, use “an.” If it begins with a consonant sound, use “a.” It's as simple as that.
Here are a few examples:
- a man
- a monkey
- a blue umbrella
- a swimming pool
- an apple
- an elephant
- an igloo
- an octopus
- an umbrella
- an ugly hat
For plural nouns, the indefinite article is “some.” It can be followed by any adverb, adjective, plural noun or uncountable noun whatsoever (as long as there's a noun somewhere in the vicinity to complete the noun phrase).
Look at these examples:
- some men
- some cute monkeys
- some blue umbrellas
- some universities
- some elephants
- some very ugly hats
- some tufts of hair
- some water
- some milk
- some money
Other Rules for Indefinite Articles
We might choose to use an indefinite article in English for one of two reasons:
- We are introducing a noun for the first time in a story. When a joke starts out, “A man walks into a bar,” the indefinite article “a” is used for both the man and the bar because this is the first mention of both nouns.
- We don't care which one exactly. If you're going to the store and your husband says, “Pick up a bottle of Chardonnay and some olive oil,” he doesn't care which bottle or which olive oil you get.
In either case, the noun is understood as being very general. There are millions of men, bars, and bottles of Chardonnay in the world, and there are millions of gallons of olive oil. When you use an indefinite article, you are beginning to narrow things down a bit, but you're not into specifics just yet.
We have only one definite article in English, and it's “the.” We use “the” for singular, plural and uncountable nouns when the reader or listener clearly understands which thing we're talking about in particular. This could be for three different reasons.
It’s Been Introduced
The first time you introduce something, you use “a” or “an.” For example, “A man walks into the bar” would be the first time he was introduced. After that, you would switch to “the.”
- The man rubs his head and says, “Ouch! Where'd that bar come from?”
- The man orders a drink.
- After finishing the drink, the man watched the couple behind him talking.
Unique People or Object
If there is only one in existence or it is unique, then you would use the definite article “the.” For example, there is only one “Sistine Chapel” and only one “Eiffel Tower.” This would look like:
- We visited the Sistine Chapel when we were in Rome.
- My family saw the Eiffel Tower.
- The sun was beautiful.
- The sky looked amazing.
This also includes unique objects in a specific place. Like “the bathroom” in your house.
- Where is the bathroom?
- The bathroom is next to the kitchen.
- I found the book in the hallway.
If you are describing exactly what you are looking for, then you would use the definite article “the.” This would include a specific “forest” or a particular “restaurant.”
- Our house is across the street from the Chinese restaurant.
- Let's open the Chardonnay that Pam and Dale gave us for our anniversary.
- The red car outside got scratched.
Other Definite Article Rules
There are a lot of very specific rules for whether to use a definite or indefinite article, but they all fall into one of the categories mentioned. For example:
- We use “the” when we use an ordinal number like first, second or third, because using an ordinal number describes exactly which one.
- We also use “the” with the names of specific rivers, monuments and the names of certain countries.
- Use “the” where the clause is introduced with the word “only.”
But at the heart of all those rules, there's a broader one at work. So, if you can just remember the ones given here, you'll be all set.
Exceptions to the Rules
While there are rules for when to use indefinite and definite articles, language is never quite that simple. Each one has exceptions to the rules.
Indefinite Article Exceptions
Most of the time, using “a” or “an” is pretty simple. However, the letters that will trip you up are “h” and “u.” Depending on how they are pronounced, the indefinite article you use might be swapped.
- Use “an” for “h” words where the “h” is not pronounced, like “an honest girl” or “an honorable mention.” You’ll notice the beginning has the “on” sound.
- Use “a” for “u” words that start with a “you” sound. Examples include “a unicorn” and “a uniform.”
Choosing “a” or “an” is based on how the next word sounds and not necessarily how it is spelled.
Definite Article Exceptions
Now, it is time to look at when we shouldn’t use “the” with words. You don’t want to use “the” in these cases:
- Languages (e.g., French)
- Professions (e.g., engineering)
- Years (e.g., 1995)
- Individual names (e.g., Long Island)
- Possessive case (e.g., brother’s car)
- Meals (e.g., breakfast)
- People’s names (e.g., John)
- Titles (e.g., Prince Charles)
Knowing Your Articles
When it comes to the English language, definite and indefinite articles and their usage can be pretty easy. However, just like anything else, there are a few exceptions to keep in mind. Since you’ve now mastered definite and indefinite articles, give irregular plural nouns a go.