Definite and Indefinite Articles
There’s one area of grammar where there are just three very little things to keep track of, and you’re already familiar with them.
It’s just a matter of learning to avoid the common mistakes that people make when it comes to definite and indefinite articles.
What’s an Article?
Toss out your idea of magazine articles when you’re thinking about what an article is in grammar, because articles in grammar are completely different things.
An article is a short word that refers to and introduces a noun. You may recall that a noun is a person, place, thing or idea. So, when I talk about a book or an apple or the president, I use both an article and a noun with each phrase.
There are three articles in the English language: a, an and the. It’s pretty easy to remember that short list of three articles.
Your main job is to remember the handful of rules for how to use them correctly.
‘A’ and ‘an’ are indefinite articles, which means that they refer to, or introduce, an unspecified noun.
In other words, we use an indefinite article in front of a noun when we’re not referring to a particular person, place, thing or idea, but we want to convey that we’re talking about any one person, place, thing or idea.
For example, if I tell you that I need a sheet of paper, I don’t have a particular, specific sheet of paper in mind. I just need paper, and any sheet of paper will do. So, it makes sense that the word ‘a’ is an indefinite article, because I’m pretty indefinite about the paper I’m referring to.
Similarly, if you say that you are thinking of buying a car, you haven’t referred to a particular car, but you’ve let me know that you’re interested in one in general. Also, you’ve referred to just one car, as opposed to many.
So, the word ‘a’ is an indefinite article, but there’s one more. As I noted earlier, the second indefinite article is ‘an.’ We use ‘a’ before a consonant sound, and we use ‘an’ an owl, an egg and an elephant.
Remember that you should pay attention not just to whether the noun you’re introducing starts with a consonant or vowel, but to whether it starts with a consonant or vowel sound. For example, you would say, ‘I wear a uniform to work,’ not ‘I wear an uniform to work.’ Listen to the ‘u’ sound that starts the word uniform. It’s a consonant sound (a ‘yh’ sound) not a vowel sound, so even though the word starts with a vowel, we’d say a uniform. Contrast that with the word umbrella, which starts with a vowel sound. It’s correct in this example to say, ‘I wish I had an umbrella.’
Similarly, when you have a noun that starts with a consonant but that makes a vowel sound, you use the indefinite article ‘an.’ This happens with several words that start with the letter ‘h,’ because ‘h’ can be silent at the start of a word, so some words starting with ‘h’ start with vowel sounds. So, we would say, ‘I will leave for work in an hour,’ not ‘I will leave for work in a hour.’ We would also say ‘an honor’ not ‘a honor,’ and when we talk about inheritances, we talk about ‘an heir’ not ‘a heir.’
Sometimes, an adjective will come between an article and the noun it’s referring to, and you should follow the same rules when that happens. For example, you would say, ‘Juan is an honest man,’ not ‘Juan is a honest man.’
One additional thing to remember about the indefinite articles ‘a’ and ‘an’ is that you should use them before singular nouns, not plural nouns. So, you would say, ‘I would like a sandwich,’ but you would not say, ‘I would like a sandwiches.’
‘The’ is the one and only definite article in English, which means that it refers to, or introduces, a particular, specific noun. For example, I could tell you to meet me at the top of the Empire State Building. There’s only one Empire State Building, so it’s a specific, definite place, so it’s correct to use the word ‘the’ here. Or, I might say that, ‘Aisha drew a picture. The picture was beautiful.’ In the first sentence, the noun picture isn’t definite, so I’ve used the indefinite article ‘a.’ But in the second sentence, it’s become clear which picture is being referred to, so it is now a specific picture, and it’s correct to use the definite article ‘the’ there.
Note that we would use the definite article ‘the’ in front of a singular or plural noun. For example, I could say, ‘I’m going to buy the pen that I like to use,’ or ‘I’m going to buy the pens that I like to use.’
There are a few rules to remember regarding when to use articles in front of proper nouns. When you’re talking about a specific person, like Mr. Washington, you wouldn’t use an article. In other words, you wouldn’t call him ‘The Mr. Washington.’ However, we use the definite article ‘the’ to refer to the members of a family. So, I might tell you that I know the Washingtons.
We don’t use an article before the names of most countries. For example, it’s Spain, not the Spain, and France, not the France. There are a few notable exceptions, though, like the United States, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.
Most specific bodies of water do require the definite article the, so we would refer to the Mississippi River, the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Again, there are exceptions. Most lakes, for example, don’t take an article, such as Lake Michigan.
When Not to Use Articles
As I noted earlier, you use an indefinite article in front of a singular noun, but not a plural noun. So, you would say, ‘I need to buy apples at the store,’ because in this sentence, you’re not buying definite, specific apples, so you don’t need a definite article, and indefinite articles don’t go in front of plural nouns like apples.