In English, there are two types or articles: definite (the) and indefinite (a, an). Use “the” to refer to a specific member of a group. Use “a” or “an” to refer to any member of a group.
The indefinite article (A, An)
THE BIG PICTURE:
- Compare these two examples:
- I'd like to buy a travel guide for our trip. (Which travel guide? We're not being specific. We just want a travel guide, any travel guide).
- Do you have the Fodor's guide? That's the travel guide I want. (We know which travel guide. We're being specific now, so we use "the").
- Use a, an to describe a person's job, what something is used for, and what type of thing something or somebody is.
- Julia is a lawyer.
- This car is a station wagon.
- She's a generous person.
- Use a, an to speak in general terms about something.
- A scarf makes any outfit look a little more interesting.
- An unpaid parking ticket can lead to many problems.
- Use a, an to describe a person in a general sense (if you don't know who the person is or if their individual identity is not important):
- A woman knocked on the door while you were at the store. (Who? What woman? We don't know).
- Jeff is dating a lawyer. (Who is she? We don't really know or care. The important thing is that she's a lawyer).
- Use a, an for descriptions. The pattern will be a,an + adjective + noun
- Tom has a long commute.
- Susan has a lovely smile.
THE FINER POINTS
When to use "a" and when to use "an"
Use "a" before nouns and adjectives starting with consonants (examples: a car; a large order). Also use "a" before nouns and adjectives starting with a "u" or an "eu" when the word begins with a consonant 'y' sound (examples: a uniform, a European country)
Use "an" before nouns and adjectives starting with a vowel (examples: an adorable dog, an unusual request). Note the exception above with "u" and "eu."
With plural nouns, use the article "some"
Singular: Please bring a chair
Plural: Please bring some chairs.
With uncountable nouns, use the article "some"
Would you like some coffee? (BUT: Would you like a cup of coffee?)
Please pick up some sugar at the store. (BUT: Please pick up a bag of sugar at the store).
The definite article (The)
THE BIG PICTURE
- Use "the" when referring to something particular, specific, or unique.
The stars are out tonight.
The plane ride to France will take about 8 hours.
The White House
- Use "the" when your listener knows which person, place or thing you're referring to.
Please open the window. (Your listener knows which window).
The plot of this movie is weak. (Your listener knows which plot).
The tomatoes from your garden are delicious. (Your listener knows which tomatoes).
When to use "the" and when to use no article
- Do not use "the" when talking about generalizations with plural or non-countable nouns.
I like coffee in the mornings (not the coffee).
We're having hamburgers for dinner (not the dinner).
Russian is a difficult language (not the Russian).
Creativity is difficult to teach (not the creativity).
Pandas are very popular animals (not the pandas).
NOTE: When the noun is singular and you're talking about generalizations, you will often use "the", as in: The panda is a much studied animal.
- Most countries do not take "the": France, Australia, South Africa. Some countries do take "the", especially countries consisting of more than one word: The United States, The Netherlands, The Czech Republic, The United Arab Emirites, The Dominican Republic.
- States, cities, and towns do not take "the", with the exception of "The Hague." Examples: California, Paris, New Haven.
- The names of most lakes, mountains,volcanoes, and islands do not take "the". Examples: Lake George, Mount St. Helens
- Many expressions do not require "the." They include:
- at night (but: in the morning, in the afternoon)
- at/to college, school, work
- Transportation: by car, by foot, by plane, by train
- Days of the week & months of the year with on or in: on Monday, on Tuesday, in December
- Professional titles: He was elected President, she was named vice president
DO use "the" in these cases:
- For points of the globe. Examples: the South Pole, the Equator.
- For most geographical regions: the Midwest, the Middle East
- For names of oceans, seas, canals, and rivers. Examples: the Missisissippi River, the Atlantic Ocean, the Panama Canal.
- For forests, deserts, gulfs and peninsulas. Examples: the Gulf of Mexico, the Black Forest).