Career Development

What Is an Article in English Grammar? Definite and Indefinite Articles Explained

February 22, 2021

Articles are important words for effective communication in the English language. They belong to a group of words called determinants and help define specific (definite) and unspecific (indefinite) things with "a", "an" and "the". Knowing the difference between definite and indefinite articles and understanding how to use them correctly can help you speak and write with more confidence.

In this article, we look at articles in English grammar, the types and how to use them for effective communication.

What is an article?

An article is a type of adjective that describes specific or unspecific nouns and noun equivalents. There are three articles in English including ‘a', ‘an' and ‘the'. These words are part of a group called determinants and they come before the noun they modify or describe.

There are two types of articles, namely the definite and indefinite articles.

Definite article (the)

‘The' is the only definite article. It is the article used when you know the identity of a noun. It comes before a noun that is specific, unique or which you mentioned earlier.

Example:

  • "This is the office."
  • "I wrote the resume."
  • "I read the report."

These statements show that the speaker or reader already knows about the nouns "office", "resume" and "report."

Indefinite article (a, an)

The indefinite articles are ‘a' and ‘an'. They come before and describe nouns which the reader or speaker does not know about, i.e., unspecific things. Indefinite articles define nouns that are general or haven't been mentioned previously.

Example:

  • "This is a law firm."
  • "I am going for an interview."

When to use articles

Articles can describe singular and plural nouns, and it's important to know when to use them to avoid errors. Here are the proper ways to use articles in English grammar.

When to use a definite article

You can use the definite article "the" with singular and plural nouns. Whether the noun is countable or uncountable, a definite article applies if you know the specific identity of the noun. For example:

  • "I applied for an online interview. The online interview was fast and hitch-free."

You can also use the article ‘the' if an adjective, clause or phrase already describes or restricts the noun's identity. For example:

  • "He prepared adequately for the interview."
  • "The manager motivated her staff to deliver the project on time."

The article ‘the' also applies to nouns that describe something or someone unique. For example:

  • "The Maslow Theory"
  • "The Great Depression"

When to use indefinite articles

The indefinite articles "a" and "an" are used for a noun or one out of a group of nouns. Both articles modify singular nouns but the sound of the noun determines which to use.

To describe one out of a non-specified group or category:

Example:

  • "We are looking for an intelligent accountant."
  • "That teller is a hardworking professional."
  • "I think we need a new photocopier."

When describing a single noun:

Example:

  • "A financial adviser"
  • "An accountant"
  • "We are hiring a receptionist and two telemarketers."

Use article "a" when a noun begins with a consonant sound and article "an" before a noun that starts with a vowel sound.

Example:

  • "A banker"
  • "A trader"
  • "An entrepreneur"
  • "An American"

Exceptions

When the noun starts with a silent consonant "h" such as in "an hour" or "an honor student."

For abbreviations, use "a" for those that start with a consonant sound e.g., "a PWD official" and "an" for abbreviations that begin with a vowel sound as in "an MOT inspector" because it begins with the vowel sound ‘em.'

When not to use articles in English

There are situations where you cannot use articles. They include the following.

Do not use articles when talking about things in general or all things. When speaking of uncountable nouns or plural countable nouns that refer to general things, you cannot use the articles "a," "n" and "the."

Example:

  • "He is looking for employment."
  • "All accountants are good with numbers."

Articles should not come before the names of countries, single islands, single lakes, continents, states and cities.

Example:

  • "He lives in Italy."
  • "The conference will be held on Tahiti Island."

Use "the" where a noun comprises smaller units or if you are talking about oceans, rivers, groups of islands or mountain ranges.

Example:

  • "He worked as an office manager in the U.S."
  • "He spent five years exploring the Himalayas."
  • "He traveled through the Sahara Desert in search of gold."
  • "The Rio Grande River flows between the United States and Mexico."

Do not use an article when describing sports and games.

Example:

  • "He enjoys playing golf."
  • "Soccer attracts huge viewership globally."

Articles should not come before the name of a language.

Example: "He speaks English fluently."

Articles should not come before meal names if they only provide a general description of the meal.

Example: "He skips breakfast every day."

When talking about railway stations, don't use articles before their names if they share them with other places.

Example: "His office is above Madison Square Train Station."

Using articles with countable and uncountable nouns

Countable nouns are those you can count including trees, houses, cars, books and others. Uncountable nouns are those that cannot be counted. They include most abstract nouns such as beauty, health, happiness, wealth, satisfaction, knowledge, experience and anger.

Countable nouns can take articles "a'," "an" and "the." But when you are talking about a limited or unspecific amount of a countable or uncountable noun, use the determinant "some."

Example:

  • "He asked his supervisor for some advice on the project."
  • "I need some rest right now."
  • "Management has some confidence in your ability to deliver the project on schedule."

Articles before job titles and office titles

If a noun directly refers to a specific job title (manager, governor or director) or the name of an office (court, congress or HR department), it starts with a capital letter if it follows the article "the."

Example:

  • "The CEO asked for an impromptu audit of the company's books."
  • "The Congress has gone for Thanksgiving recess."
  • "The District Court of Chicago delivered a definitive judgment on the welfare of automobile workers."
  • "The HR department is preparing for another round of interviews."

If the office name or job title follows the article "a" or "an'," start with a lowercase letter.

Example:

  • "A director in my department"
  • "An intern in a law firm"

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