All Rules of Using Articles: A, An, The

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There are three articles in English—A, An, and The. These articles strongly connect with nouns as they help specify the standard of nouns. Unfortunately, many English language learners often get confused about choosing the right article while writing or speaking.   

Articles are adjectives that help to identify whether the nouns refer to anything specific or unspecific. Articles also act as determiners or modifiers as they are significantly used to determine the standard of nouns.

When choosing an article, finding the answers to the following questions will help us get it right. 

  • Is the noun countable or uncountable?
  • Is it singular or plural?
  • Does it refer to anything definite?
  • What is the initial sound(vowel/consonant) of the word? 

Example 1: I need to buy a pen.

Example 2: Would you please give me an umbrella? It’s raining.

Example 3: This is the movie I wanted to watch. 

In example 1, the indefinite article “A” is used before the countable noun “pen.” The sentence shows that the speaker does not want to buy a specific pen. S/he can have any pen.

In example 2, the indefinite article “An” is used before the countable noun “umbrella.” But, again, the speaker does not request any specific umbrella.  

In both examples, the interesting matter is that we have found two unspecific countable nouns. Still, they took two different articles before them. Why? We will talk about it in the latter part of the lesson.

In example 3, the speaker wanted to watch a specific movie. Thus, the countable noun movie takes the definite article “The” before it.     

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What Are the Types of Articles?

In grammar, there are three types of articles: definite, indefinite, and zero. The definite article “the” specifies a particular noun. Indefinite articles “a” and “an” refer to any general noun. The zero article is used when no article is needed, typically before uncountable or plural nouns.

Definite Article: The

Definite articles in English are used to specify particular nouns that are already known to the reader or listener. The definite article “the” precedes both singular and plural nouns, such as “the cat” or “the books,” indicating a specific item or group. It is the only definite article in English.

  • Singular: the table, the town, the officer
  • Plural: the tables, the towns, the officers
  • Countable: the balls, the cities, the women
  • Uncountable: the water, the money, the electricity

Indefinite Articles: A and An

Indefinite articles in English are “a” and “an,” used to refer to non-specific nouns. “A” is used before words starting with a consonant sound (e.g., “a book”), while “an” is used before words starting with a vowel sound (e.g., “an apple”). They introduce a general item rather than a specific one.

  • Singular: a table, a town, an officer, a student, a teacher
  • Plural: No article is required
  • Countable: a ball, a city, a woman, a country, a man
  • Uncountable: No article is required

Rules of Using Articles in English Sentences

The following table shows the conditions for using articles in English. But remember, it does not exclusively show the article’s rules. There are some exceptions too.

Conditions of Using Articles in English

Also, note that some nouns may refer to something specific on different occasions, but still, they don’t need to take the definite article (the). We call them the omission of articles. Don’t worry! We’ll discuss it later in this post.     

Now, let’s try to answer the questions mentioned in the earlier part of the lesson. If we can answer the following questions, undoubtedly, we will be able to determine when an English noun needs an article before it and, if required, which article to use.

Is the Noun Countable or Uncountable?

The use of articles greatly depends on whether the noun is countable or uncountable. 

Rule no. 1: A singular countable noun always takes an article, either the indefinite (a, an) or definite (the).

  • This is a storybook.
  • This is an interesting storybook.
  • This is the best storybook I have ever read.

Rule no. 2: A plural countable noun that refers to any definite group takes the definite article (the).

  • The students are planning a study tour next month.
  • Please, send the message to all the employees.
  • The players of Manchester United have already arrived.  

Rule no. 3: A plural countable noun used in a general sense does not require any article.

  • Only students are allowed to attend the seminar. 
  • Teachers are the conscience of any nation.
  • Players are expected to stay fit all the time.

Rule no. 4: Uncountable nouns never take an indefinite article (a/an), yet they are considered singular nouns.

  • Furniture enriches the beauty of a house.
  • Honey is sweeter than sugar.
  • I always take advice from her.

Rule no. 5: Definite article (the) is sometimes used with uncountable nouns.

  • Would you mind passing me the salt?
  • That is the information I was looking for.
  • The courage you showed yesterday was praiseworthy.  

Is the Noun Singular or Plural?

The use of articles somewhat depends on the number of nouns. Here are a few simple rules for using articles depending on whether the noun is singular or plural.

Rule 1: A singular noun usually requires an article (a/an/the).

  • James is the only son of my uncle.
  • I saw a bird in my window yesterday. 
  • Cricket is an interesting game.

Remember the exception! If the noun is uncountable, it is usually considered a singular noun. When this type of noun is used in a general sense, sometimes it may take no articles.

  • I need to take medicine every day.
  • Milk is full of nutritious values.  
  • Water is mandatory for life.   

Rule 2: A plural noun does not take an indefinite article (a/an). Sometimes takes the definite article (the).

  • I want to have a meeting with all the employees.
  • I like to watch war movies.
  • The boys are playing on the field.

Rule 3: Sometimes, a plural noun may not require any article. 

  • People nowadays are more into social media.
  • They are my Cousins.
  • Fruits are a great source of vitamins.

Does It Refer to Anything Definite?

One of the most important points considered in using articles is determining whether the noun refers to anything specific.

Rule 1: If the noun refers to anything specific, it takes a definite article (the).

  • This is the most important topic. 
  • He is the only girl in the batch. 
  • Shakespeare is the greatest playwright of all time.

Rule 2: If the noun refers to anything unspecific, it takes an indefinite article (a/an).

  • I wish to take a trip to Australia next month.
  • A friend in need is a good friend indeed. 
  • He is an extraordinarily worthy person.

What Is the Initial Sound (Vowel/Consonant) of the Word?

While using indefinite articles (a/an), the word that immediately comes after the article plays an important role in determining whether one should use a or an.

Rule 1: If any noun’s initial sound is a vowel and it needs to take an article, usually the article is “An.”

  • He is an Arabian.
  • The animal you can see is an elephant.
  • We are looking for an idea. 

Rule 2: If any noun’s initial sound is a consonant and it needs to take an article, usually the article is “A.”

  • This is a boy.
  • I can see a rat hiding under the sofa.
  • Would you please lend me a laptop for a few days?

What Are the Most Important Rules for Using Articles?

Rule 1: Sounds vs. Letters

Remember! Sometimes we get confused between letters and sounds. English has 26 letters, but there are 44 sounds in total. Likewise, English has 20 vowel sounds, though we have only five letters considered vowels. On the other hand, we have 21 consonants, whereas there are 24 consonant sounds. 

Articles do not have anything to do with letters but rather sounds. No matter what the initial letter of the word is, if the initial sound is a vowel, it usually takes “An” as an indefinite article. There are some exceptions too. Let’s look at some examples and exceptions.

Example 1: He is an MBBS. 

Look at the word “MBBS.” The word starts with the letter M, which is a consonant. But the pronunciation of the word shows that the initial sound is a vowel sound. Thus it takes “An” as an article.

Example 2: He is a one-eyed man. 

Here, the word “one-eyed” starts with the letter o, which as a letter, is a vowel. But if we utter the word, the initial sound is a consonant sound; thus, it requires the article “A.”

Example 3: My brother is an honest police officer.

More examples/exceptions: a university, a union, a useful book, a one-dollar note, a one-man army, an MA, a BA, an LLB, a BSC, etc.

Rule 2: Omission of Articles

Remember! Every noun does not require an article. Thus we need to know when an article is unnecessary. Having said that, let’s look at the following table for the omission of articles.

In Conclusion

So, to sum up, we can say articles are usually adjectives. They can also work as determiners or modifiers of the following nouns.

The articles “A” and “An” are indefinite ones, while “The” is the definite one. When a noun refers to something specific, it takes the definite article “The.” On the other hand, when it refers to something unspecific, it takes an indefinite one, “A” or “An.”

Thanks for reading!

Happy learning.

Niaj A A Khan is an ESL Instructor with over 8 years of experience in teaching & developing resources at different universities and institutes. Mr. Khan is also a passionate writer working on his first book, "Learn English at Ease."

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