How to use articles in English

by Adriana Stein
May 04, 2021
The use of articles in English

Need to refer to a specific object or thing in English? That’s where articles come in handy!

We use them in combination with just about everything, so they’re a super important element of English fluency. To get you off on the right foot, here is an overview of how to use articles.

All about articles in English

Articles are words used to define the noun they accompany as to whether they’re specific or not. 

There are two types of articles in English:

  • Definite articles
  • Indefinite articles

Definite articles are used to talk about a specific instance of the noun that both speakers know about. Indefinite articles refer to a generic instance of the noun. 

I know it sounds complicated, but it’s actually easy to understand once you’ve seen some examples and practiced a bit.

Definite articles

The definite article in the English language is the.

It’s used to refer to something specific that both speakers know. Check the following examples:

  • Can you pass me the salt?
  • Tom doesn’t like the situation.
  • We didn’t like the restaurant’s food.

When I ask you to pass me the salt, you and I both know I am referring to the salt that’s specifically located on the table.

The same goes for Tom’s situation and the unpalatable food. Imagine Tom finding himself in a dark alley and feeling like he’s being followed. The speakers know Tom is in that situation, so they use the to refer to it. 

In the last example, we love food (who doesn’t?), but the food prepared in the specific restaurant we are talking about wasn’t good.

Indefinite articles

The indefinite articles in English are a and an.

They are used to refer to a generic instance of the noun they refer to, not something specific. Here are some examples of how to use indefinite articles:

  • I’d like to get a dog.
  • Sarah is an expert in geography.
  • Can you give me a glass of water?

When you say you want a dog, you don’t know yet which dog you’re getting, you are simply wishing for a dog. 

Even if you were to be more specific and get a particular breed of dog, you’d still use a, since you’d be fine with many different dogs, as long as they were of that specific breed.

Sarah is an expert in geography, but she’s not the only one. What’s funny is that if you replaced a with the, you’d be suggesting that Sarah is the biggest expert in geography you know. 

In the last example, the speaker only cares about getting a glass of water. They don’t care which glass they are getting, they just want some water.

Quick note: a and an have the same meaning, the difference is in how to use them: you use a when the word following it starts with a consonant, you use an when the following word starts with a vowel. 

There are exceptions though: h is a consonant, but since it’s often a silent letter (you don’t pronounce it), words beginning with h often are preceded by an:

  • An hour 
  • An honour
  • An heir

The h in the above examples is silent, so you use an.

Conversely:

  • A helicopter 
  • A heretic
  • A horse
  • A heart

The h in these words is actually pronounced, so you use a.

What article is used for uncountable nouns?

You can’t use a or an with uncountable nouns. However, you can make them countable by using units of measurements, like this:

  • I’d like a tea. (wrong) 
  • I’d like a cup of tea. (correct)
  • She wanted a milk. (wrong)
  • She wanted a glass of milk. (correct)

But what about the definite article the with uncountable nouns?

It only makes sense when you are referring to a unit that both speakers know about. It’s a bit complicated, but here’s an example to understand how it works:

  • Can you pass me the water?

Why does this work? Because the sentence implies that the water is inside something that can be passed, like a cup or a bottle. The same goes for the following example:

  • Give me the money in your wallet.

Money is uncountable, but by specifying which money you want, the sentence makes sense.

Definite articles and pronouns

The definite article the and pronouns have the same function: they specify what you are talking about. 

This makes using both in the same sentence redundant. Check these examples:

  • Have you seen the my key?
  • Have you seen my key?
  • Have you seen the key?

The first sentence is wrong and sounds awful. The other two are correct, but they have different meanings depending on context. “My key” implies it’s a key to something that belongs to me, perhaps a car, or my house. “The key” refers to a key that could be necessary at the moment, but it doesn’t specify possession. 

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