LAVC Writing Center
The words a, an, and the are called articles. They signal that a noun is about to appear. The noun may come immediately after the article, or there may be describing words between the article and the noun (the tree, a tall tree, an old oak tree).
Two types of nouns to keep in mind when thinking about articles are count nouns and noncount nouns. Count nouns have plural forms and refer to items that can be counted (students, classes). Noncount nouns usually do not have plural forms and refer to items that cannot be counted (biology, advice, water, bread).
DEFINITE ARTICLES: Use the definite article the with nouns whose specific identity is known to the reader. The identity should be clear for one of these reasons:
- The noun has already been mentioned in a previous sentence or earlier in the sentence.
- My home has a kitchen and two bedrooms. (first mention)
- The kitchen is large, but the bedrooms are small. (second mention)
2. The noun is identified by other information in the same sentence.
- The food in our cafeteria is not very good. (The phrase in our cafeteria identifies food.)
3. The speaker knows the listener is thinking about the same item.
- Where did you park the car? (We came together in the same car, so we are both thinking about the same car.
The can be used in front of all nouns – singular and plural count nouns as well as noncount nouns.
INDEFINITE ARTICLES: Use a or an with singular count nouns whose specific identity is not known to the reader. In other words, the speaker and the listener are not thinking about exactly the same item. A is used before a word beginning with a consonant sound (a tree, a green apple, a university). An is used before a word beginning with a vowel sound (an oak tree, an hour, an MTA bus).
- He buys a soft drink every day. (not a specific soft drink)
- He also buys an apple. (not a specific apple)
With plural nouns whose specific identity is not known to the reader, use some or no article at all. (Some is really an indefinite pronoun, but it acts like an indefinite article.) Some shows an amount, but not a specific amount.
- The shoes store has boots on sale.
- The shoe store has some boots on sale.
Complete the sentences with the given words. Choose words in the parentheses as necessary.
- (The / A) dogs in the park are mine.
- The New York Times is (a / some) famous paper.
- Kimberlee ate (a / some) banana.
- Please pass me (the / a) salt.
- Use (the / a) candles for (a / some) light.
Here are some conversations. Try to decide whether the speakers probably use the or a/an. Are the speakers thinking about the same objects or persons?
- Do you have _____ 1 car?
No. But I have _____ 2 bicycle.
- Do you need _____ 3 car today, Joe?
Okay. But be sure to fill _____ 4 car up with gas sometime today.
- Did you have a good time at _____ 5 concert last night?
So did I.
- I bought _____ 6 orangutan from him.
How much did it cost?
- Is Mr. Jones _____ 7 graduate student?
No. He’s _____8 professor of the class.
Fill in the spaces in the following paragraph, choosing from the following articles: a, an, the, or some. If no article is required, leave the space blank.
I am _____1 student at Valley College. I’m _____2 English major now, but I used to study _____3 Biology. I enjoy writing papers, but when I have _____4 difficult assignment, I go to _____5 Writing Center to get _____6 help. I am hungry after class, so I eat at _____7 cafeteria. I usually buy _____8 hamburger and _____9 fries.
Using a, an, or no article
Using a, an, or some
SINGULAR COUNT NOUNS
A dog makes a good pet.
- Use a with a singular count noun when making a generalization.
- The speaker is talking about any dog, dogs in general.
I saw a dog in my yard.
- Use awith a singular count noun when talking about one thing or person that is not specific.
- The speaker is saying, “I saw one dog. It wasn’t a specific dog.”
Did you feed the dog?
- Use the with singular count (the dog), plural count (the dogs), and noncount (the fruit) nouns.
- A speaker uses the (not a, no article, or some) when the speaker and listener are thinking about the same specific thing(s) or person(s).
- The speaker and listener are thinking about the same specific dog.
PLURAL COUNT NOUNS
Dogs make good pets.
- Use no article with a plural count noun when making a generalization.
- The speaker is talking about any doe, all dogs, dogs in general.
- Sometimes a speaker uses an expression of quantity when making a generalization:
I saw some dogs in my yard.
- Use some with a plural count noun when talking about things or people that are not specific.
- The speaker is saying, “I saw more than one dog.”
- In addition to some, a speaker might use several, a few, a lot of:
Did you feed the dogs?
- Using the with the plural count noun.
-The speaker and listener are thinking about the same dogs.
I had some bananas and some apples. I gave the bananas to Mary.
Fruit is good for you.
- Use no article with a noncount noun when making a generalization.
- The speaker is talking about any fruit, all fruit, fruit in general.
I bought some fruit.
- A speaker often uses some with a noncount noun when s/he is talking about something that is not specific.
- The speaker is saying, “I bought an indefinite amount of fruit. I’m not talking about specific fruit.”
The fruit in this bowl is ripe.
*You can count pieces of fruit, but not fruit in general. It is the pieces that are counted, not the fruit.
The latter table has been adapted from Fundamentals of English Grammar, p.206-7
This handbook is based on the following book:
Azar, Betty Schrampfer. Fundamentals of English Grammar. 2nd ed. New Jersey. Prentice Hall Regents. 206-7.
For further reference, see the following books:
Azar, Betty Schrampfer. Understanding and Using English Grammar. 2nd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall Regents,
1993. 60, 122-3.
Beason, Larry and Mark Lester. A Commonsense Guide to Grammar and Usage. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 2000. 245-75.