Do you get frustrated by a, an, and the? We’re here to help.

In part one of this post, we reviewed the different kinds of nouns. With that knowledge, we can now understand when to use each article – or when to use no article at all.

“The”: The definitive article

“The” is the most common words in the English language, and we call it the definitive article. That means that it can define a noun. It refers to a specific person, place, thing, or idea. The may come before a singular, plural, or uncountable noun:

  • the banana
  • the strawberries
  • the bread (uncountable)

“The” tells which one

Consider these two sentences:

  • I have books on my shelf. I really like the book about birds.

In the first sentence, the speaker introduces the topic of books. In the second sentence, she makes a statement about a specific book: the one about birds. Therefore, she says “the book”. The definite article, the, defines which book she’s talking about.

“The” precedes the second (or third, fourth, etc.) mention of a noun

Sometimes a speaker says more than one sentence about a noun. For example:

  • I see two dogs outside. The dogs are white with black spots.

The first sentence introduces the topic of two dogs. The second sentence is about the same dogs. We already know which dogs the speaker is talking about, because he already mentioned them. Therefore, he uses “the dogs” in the second sentence.

“The” precedes unique nouns

We use “the” before a noun that is the only one of its kind or the only one in the present context.

  • I can see the moon tonight. (There’s only one moon.)
  • Go to the school office and ask the academic director for help. (In this situation, the school has only one office and one academic director.)
  • Please pass the salt. (There is one salt shaker at our table.)

“The” precedes a noun with a superlative adjective

  • This is the best orange juice that I’ve ever tasted.
  • Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley are the greatest entertainers in history.

“The” precedes certain proper nouns in geography

In these cases, only capitalize the if it is at the beginning of the sentence.

  • rivers: Piranhas live in the Amazon River.
  • seas: The Aegean Sea is between Greece and Turkey.
  • oceans: The Arctic Ocean is the smallest ocean.
  • groups of islands: I took a trip to the Bahamas.
  • mountain ranges: Have you been hiking in the Rocky Mountains?
  • country names that include Kingdom, States, or Republic: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland make up the United Kingdom.
  • plural country names: I have a friend who lives in the Netherlands.

“A” and “an”: The indefinite articles

These two words are indefinite articles. Indefinite is the opposite of definite, so indefinite articles introduce nouns that are not specified, either because the answer to “which one?” is not known to the listener or not important.

  • We took a class last month. (The listener doesn’t know about this class.)
  • I met a smart girl. (The listener doesn’t know which girl he met.)
  • Please buy me a cup of coffee. (I don’t care which exact cup it is. I just want some coffee.)
  • I put an apple in the shopping cart. (It doesn’t matter which apple it was.)

“A” or “an” must precede a countable, singular noun.

  • There are an ants all over the sidewalk.
  • I have to do a homework.

Use “a” if the next word begins with a consonant sound.

  • My boyfriend has a cat.
  • Today is a wonderful day.
  • She is a university student. (Watch out! Though university begins with a vowel, it begins with a consonant sound: [yünə’vərsətē].)

Use “an” if the next word begins with a vowel sound.

  • I ate an egg for breakfast.
  • He told us an interesting story.
  • My father is an honorable gentleman. (Tricky! Though honorable begins with a consonant, it begins with a vowel sound: [‘änərəbəl].)

When to use no article

There are three situation in which we do not any article before a noun.

Before a non-specific, uncountable noun

  • The sugar is bad for your teeth. (sugar in general)
  • He made a money by working at his mother’s store. (money in general, not a specific amount of money)

Before a non-specific plural countable noun

  • Indiana Jones was afraid of the snakes. (all snakes, not only specific ones)
  • The rainbows are beautiful. (all rainbows, not only specific ones)

Before most proper nouns

  • I want to travel to the Paris one day.
  • The Hondas are reliable cars. (all Hondas, not only specific ones)
  • I love to listen to the Nicki Minaj.

We hope these two posts have made English articles a little easier to understand. Do you still have a question? Please leave it in the comments and we’ll help!