A. An. The.

These three words (known as articles) cause a lot of headaches for English learners. In fact, teachers and researchers find that even for advanced students, articles are “their last, and more persistent, source of frustration” (source). The rules for their use are full of exceptions and small differences in meaning and context.

We can’t promise that you’ll master English articles in just two blog posts, but we can review their use and help you to improve your English.

Types of nouns

Since articles go before nouns and give information about them, the rules for article use require a good understanding of nouns. Today, we’ll talk about three different ways to divide nouns into groups. In our next post, we’ll use this information to describe common uses of a, an, and the (plus a bonus fourth option: no article at all!)

Singular and plural

This one is simple: Singular nouns refer to one person, place, thing, or idea. Plural nouns refer to more than one. Most plural nouns end with -s; some are irregular and break this rule. Some common irregular plural nouns include:

  • men
  • women
  • children
  • people
  • feet
  • mice
  • teeth

Countable and uncountable

Any noun that can be made plural is called a countable noun. You can count these nouns:

  • one pizza
  • two shoes
  • seven trucks

Other nouns are uncountable. They cannot be counted. Many of these are liquids, materials, and abstract concepts:

  • one water
  • two golds
  • seven happinesses

You can see more examples of uncountable nouns here.

Proper and common nouns

Proper nouns are names for specific people, places, and things. They always begin with capital letters. What is your name? That’s a proper noun.

Common nouns are more general in meaning. They do not name specific people, places, or things.

  • Proper nouns / common nouns
  • Emma Watson / actress
  • Nashville / city
  • Mount Fuji / mountain
  • Harley-Davidson / motorcycle
  • Spence Lane / street

Now that you understand the types of nouns, check out part 2 of this post. There you’ll apply your noun knowledge to better understand how to use English articles.