The Complete Guide to Definite and Indefinite Articles

11/07/2018 By
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In almost every sentence we make in English, we need to use an article. Articles are small but important words that precede nouns, and by using them correctly you will distinguish yourself as a good English speaker. Here’s a complete guide to definite and indefinite articles with help on when to use which and when to use neither.

What is an Article?

An article is a word that goes before a noun, giving some basic information about the noun, such as if it is singular or plural, or if the object is specific or general. The English articles are a, an, some, and the.

Indefinite Articles

There are three indefinite articles in English – two for the singular form (a, an) and one for the plural form (some).

We use an indefinite article in English when:

  • We refer to something for the first time
  • We refer to a general thing, and not something specific
  • We describe a person’s profession

A/an

We use both ‘a’ and ‘an’ in the same way but we use ‘a’ in front of a consonant, and ‘an’ in front of a vowel (a,e,i,o,u). For example:

Here are some examples:

There’s a cat in the garden!

I need a stamp for this letter.

Sally is an accountant. She works for a multinational company.

We need an apple and an orange for the fruit salad.

Is there a whiteboard in the classroom?

My husband drives a lorry.

Some

We use ‘some’ for the plural form of all nouns and for uncountables. (An uncountable noun is a word that only has the singular form, e.g. ‘sugar’.)  For example:

Here are some examples:

Would you like some wine?

Here are some photos of our last holiday.

We need some milk. Can you get a carton when you go out?

Some people are sunbathing in the park.

There are some fun places to go in my town.

I eat some biscuits and drink some coffee for breakfast every day.

The Definite Article

The definite article in English is ‘the’, and we can use it with singular and plural nouns. We use ‘the’ when:

  • We have already identified the noun we are referring to in a previous phrase
  • There is only one of this thing (for example, ‘the station’ – there is only one in the city)
  • We use certain expressions, especially related to physical things such as ‘the weather’, ‘the sea’, ‘the environment’.

Here are some examples:

You can’t go to the post office now. It’s closed.

Can you turn on the television?

The shopping bags are still in the car. I’ll get them.

Where’s the bottle-opener?

The students are waiting for the lesson to start.

The washing machine is broken. We need to get another one.

The presentation is ready for you to check Mrs. Harper.

What’s the weather like in your country?

No article

It can be difficult to know when not to use an article in English, especially when you translate from your native language which has different rules for articles. Here are the main cases when we don’t use an article:

  • Don’t use an article with possessive adjectives. For example, “She’s my friend” and not “She’s a my friend.”
  • Don’t use an article with a general topic. For example, compare the following sentences

I love music. (meaning music in general)

I love the music you’re playing. (meaning this specific music)

  • Don’t put an article in front of country names except when they include ‘kingdom’, ‘states’ and ‘lands’. For example:

– France (without ‘the’)

– The Netherlands (with ‘the’)

Choosing the Right Article

The main thing to remember when you speak is that the first time you refer to something, you generally need to use ‘a’ or ‘an’. The second time you refer to the same thing you can use ‘the’. And when you refer to a unique thing or place, you can use ‘the’. Here are some examples of using both ‘a/an’ and ‘the’:

They had a long meeting. When the meeting ended they had a coffee break.

We need a pen. I think there’s one in the kitchen.

He started here as an office worker. Now he’s the Managing Director!

We’re planning a holiday. We’ll probably go to the sea.

Being a doctor must be difficult. The doctor I saw yesterday was very kind.

I must buy some sugar. The sugar bowl is empty.

Now you’ve seen how and when to use definite and indefinite articles, spend the next few days practicing. Try reading and listening to some short articles or stories and videos in English, and pay attention to how the writers and speakers use articles. By using articles correctly you will really improve the quality and accuracy of your English.

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Mary Milne avatar

Mary Milne

Author of this post

Mary Milne has worked for Wall Street English for 20 years. After studying at the University of Bristol and subsequently doing a CELTA course, she began her career in teaching. Over the years she has gained a wealth of knowledge and experience in ESL and has worked as an Online Community Manager, and author for Wall Street English International and Pearson, writing informative educational content. She dedicates most of her free time to music, playing in a band and singing in a choir.

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