A, An & The: All About Articles

3 min read

The word article is a useful homonym — it can mean a particular item, such as an article of clothing, and it can also be a piece of writing in a publication, such as an article about the upcoming state fair. The word is also used to describe a clause in a legal document (“Article 9 in Section 3”), but, here, we’re reviewing grammar articles. These little words are also known as determiners, and they’re paired with nouns to bridge all parts of a sentence. In English, the words “a,” “an,” and “the” are articles, and while you may gloss over them or take them for granted, these microwords play a powerful role in the English language.

What Is an Article?

Some major world languages, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, don’t use articles, while others (especially Romance languages) use articles to express if a noun is feminine or masculine. In English, however, the article identifies if a noun is specific or generic (also called definite and indefinite).

For example, in the sentence, “Are you buying the car?” the speaker is asking about a specific car the other person might purchase. But the phrase “Are you buying a car?” is not referring to any particular vehicle. The two people could be discussing any car. Depending on the article used, it’s made clear if the car is one particular model or any available vehicle.

Definite Articles

“The” is a definite article. This word limits the meaning of the noun. If “Mary returned the book” or “Thomas painted the house,” we are talking about one specific book and one specific house.

A definite article clarifies particular places, people, or objects even when they are not explicitly named. “The” is versatile and can be used with singular, plural, or uncountable nouns.

I’m cleaning the kitchen.

Did you see the deer this morning?

He is hiking across the mountains.

Indefinite Articles

“A” or “an” are indefinite articles, meaning they can be paired with any non-specific person, place, thing, or idea.

For example, when Mike tells Petra, “I’m going to buy you a ring,” this could mean any ring. Gold, silver, platinum, or gumball, Mike doesn’t have a specific ring in mind yet.

Use “a” if the word that comes after begins with a consonant sound. Use “an” if the word that follows begins with a vowel sound:

I’m going to adopt a dog.

Tom is eating an apple.

He always stops for a coffee in the morning.

The vowel sound is more important than the actual letter. Words that begin in a silent “h” should use the “an” article, such as “an honest,” “an honor,” or “an hour.” The opposite is true of “u” words that begin with a “you” sound. Despite starting with a vowel, they need to use the “a” article, as in “a university,” “a uniform,” and “a ukulele.”

When to Avoid Articles

It seems like “a,” “an,” and “the” are everywhere, but they can be dropped in some circumstances.

Typically, no article is needed when referring to certain nationalities, geographic areas, school subjects, or sports.

I speak the Spanish fluently. / I speak Spanish fluently.

Henry is visiting the Lake Erie. / Henry is visiting Lake Erie.

Matt majored in the history. / Matt majored in history.

Do you want to play the baseball? / Do you want to play baseball?

Sometimes, articles can be omitted altogether for simplicity. When a “zero article” is used, the article is understood or implied.

Savannah looked at the clouds in the sky. / Savannah looked at clouds in the sky.

Zero-articles often apply to uncountable nouns — things that cannot be counted with numbers. In these cases, it’s appropriate to drop the article, or use a qualifier, such as “some” or “any.”

Give him water. / Give him some water.

These rules apply to American English, but different English dialects have other guidelines for the zero article. For example, in American English, “the” belongs before “hospital,” as in “He was admitted to the hospital.” But in British English, it’s perfectly acceptable to drop the article and say, “He was admitted to hospital.”

Here ends the article about articles.

Featured image credit: Sneksy/ iStock

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