How to Use Articles in English

Lesson 3.1 How to Use Articles in English

How to Use Articles in English

3.1.1  There are only three articles in the English language – a, an (indefinite articles), and the (definite article) – but they cause an enormous amount of confusion among students! They can be difficult to understand because many languages do not include them so they cannot be translated, e.g. Polish, Japanese, and Russian. Articles are function words, rather than content words, and belong to a larger group of words called determiners. Unfortunately, we need to study articles because these words are very common in the English language. In fact, the is the most common word in written English, while a is #6 and an is #32. We often need to put an article before a noun. Which article we use and whether we use one at all depends on the type of noun and the context:

If you are unsure about using articles you should check your writing when you finish: look at each noun, think about what type it is and the context, and whether an article is required – or not.

See also the larger photocopiable version of this table use-of-articles-in-english.

3.1.2  Why do we even need articles anyway? One of the advantages they have is that they introduce a weak stressed syllable with a schwa sound right before a content word, which often has a strong stressed first syllable.This helps to emphasis the content word, from which we get meaning, as well as creating the typical rhythm and ‘bounce’ of spoken English. For example:

It sounds more like English.

3.1.3  As you can see from the table above, if the noun is singular and countable there must be an article before it. If the context is general, you can use a or an. We use an before a noun that begins with a vowel sound, e.g.

A: I need a book.     noun begins with a consonant sound = use a
B: I need an egg.     noun begins with a vowel sound = use an

In both sentences the context is general – we don’t know anything about the book or the egg. It is the first time they are mentioned = first mention.

In the following sentence, because we now know about the two nouns (book and egg), the context becomes specific and we use the.

C: This is the book I need.
C: This is the egg I need.

If a countable noun is plural and the context is general or it is first mention, we don’t use an article. This is called “zero article” – when there is no article, e.g.

D: I like books.

But if the context is specific – the noun is defined in some way – then we use the:

E: The books in this library are really old.

The same applies to uncountable nouns – both real (concrete):

F: I use water every day.     general context, i.e. any water = no article
G: The water is very hot.     specific context, i.e. this water = use the

…and abstract:

H: I love music.     general context, i.e. all music = no article
I: The music in this club is great.     specific context = use the

Proper nouns are words which always start with a capital letter, like the names of people (“Eric Harrison”), cities (“Birmingham”), countries (“Mexico”), companies (“McDonalds”), products (“Coke Zero”), days (“Monday”), months (“December”), etc. We do not usually put an article before a proper noun.

Exception 1: when the proper noun is made up of an adjective + noun (e.g. “United” = adjective + “Kingdom” = noun) we need to use the definite article: “I live in the United Kingdom.”

J: Barcelona is such a beautiful city. NOT The Barcelona…

Exception 2: We use the definite article with plural place names, e.g. the Bahamas. If you are still not sure which article to use with each noun in your text, use this flow chart use-of-articles-in-english-flow-chart.

3.1.4  Some example errors:

“I live in the house in Bristol.”
Use a because there is more than one house in Bristol!

“What’s a phone number for the swimming pool?”
Use the because the swimming pool has got one specific phone number.

“Music was too loud so we had to leave.”
Use the because in this context music is specific – the music in that place.

3.1.5  We use the when the noun is specific or known to each person in the conversation. For example:

I went to the new cinema on Leyland Street last night.
It is a specific cinema – not just any cinema. We cannot say “…a cinema on Leyland Street” because it is very unlikely for there to be more than one!

Let’s switch on the TV and watch Coronation Street.
The person or people I am talking to know about the TV and can probably see it because we are all in the same room.

We also use the before superlative adjectives and ordinal numbers:

It is the best TV programme.     best is the superlative form of the adjective ‘good’

I’m the first person to finish!     first is an ordinal number (of one)

Interestingly, the word the has two different pronunciations:

  • before a consonant sound:    th     with an embedded schwa sound
  • before a vowel sound     thii     with a short ii sound

3.1.6  We can use the determiner some before plural and uncountable nouns instead of zero article:

I would like spaghetti. > I would like some spaghetti.

It sounds better because the weak stressed word some has a schwa sound and this extra weak syllable improves the rhythm and ‘bounce’ of the sentence. It sounds more naturally English:

If the sentence is negative or a question form we use any instead of some:

Would you like any spaghetti? / No, I wouldn’t like any spaghetti.

3.1.7  We use a when we talk about frequency or quantity:

‘Once a week.’
‘Three times a day.’
‘£1.15 pence a litre.’

3.1.8  If the thing has one or more modifier before it – e.g. an adjective or an intensifier – the article goes before the first modifier:

‘It was a great party.’
‘My grandma had a really lovely day.’

3.1.9  We can use a possessive adjective (e.g. my, your, our, etc.) instead of an article – but never with an article! – when the noun belongs to somebody:

This is a book. > This is my book.     This is a my book. / This is her the book.

Or we can use different determiners, e.g. this, that, these, those instead of an article –but never with an article:

I want a book. > I want this book.     I want this a book. / I want these the books.

See also this information regarding articles and how to use them: understanding-articles-in-english.


Ex. 3.1.1 Writing  Which indefinite article should we write in front of the following words – ‘a’ or ‘an’?

1. __________ chair
2. __________ girl
3. __________ school
4. __________ egg
5. __________ hour
6. __________ apple
7. __________ exam
8. __________ hospital
9. __________ year
10. __________ university
11. __________ address
12. __________ ear
13. __________ sheep
14. __________ tie
15. __________ union
16. __________ orange
17. __________ ice cream
18. __________ pencil
19. __________ umbrella
20. __________ shoe
21. __________ number
22. __________ heater
23. __________ interview
24. __________ appliance
25. __________ heir
26. __________ computer
27. __________ bag
28. __________ octopus
29. __________ ewe
30. __________ fridge

Ex. 3.1.2 Writing  Complete the four gaps in each question with a, an, the, and – (zero article):

1. – Do you like a)_______________ Copenhagen?
– Yes, I do. b)_______________ first time I came here I stayed in
c)_______________ tiny guest house. The owner had
d)_______________ enormous dog!

2. I read a)_______________ good book last week.
b)_______________ book was by Alfredo Montessori. He is
c)_______________ Italian writer. I got a lot of d)_______________
pleasure from it.

3. a)_______________ Sarah works at b)_______________ bank.
c)_______________ bank is forty miles from her home. She has
d)_______________ eighty-minute commute each way.

4. I really love a)_______________ fish, and b)_______________ fish
in this restaurant is superb. I’m looking forward to eating
c)_______________ big juicy fish in d)_______________ hour from

5. I went to a)_______________ swimming pool yesterday.
b)_______________ little boy fell over and had to have
c)_______________ treatment on his leg. d)_______________
assistant said that he would be OK.

6. – I can meet you tomorrow.
– Have you got a)_______________ time?
-Yes. I’ve got b)_______________ appointment with
c)_______________ builder at eleven, but I can change
d)_______________ time.

7. – Don’t be late for a)_______________ work, or
b)_______________ manager will be angry with you.
– OK, I will use c)_______________ alarm clock and also ask
d)_______________ friend to give me a wake-up call at six o’clock.

8. – I bought a)_______________ blue guitar on Wednesday.
– The one I saw? Super! Can you play it?
– No, but I’m having b)_______________ few lessons with
c)_______________ old guy called d)_______________ Barry.

9.- Have you seen a)_______________ old jumper anywhere?
– Is it b)_______________ one with the blue collar?
– Yes, and it’s got c)_______________ orange stripes.
– It’s over there, under d)_______________ pile of cushions.

10.I went to a)_______________ post office yesterday to post
b)_______________ parcel. It cost about c)_______________
twenty pounds, which I thought was d)_______________ extortionate
amount of money.

11.One of our neighbours is a)_______________ guy who hails from
b)_______________ Finland. He is c)_______________ interpreter
who works at d)_______________ same firm as my uncle.

12.- Let’s put a)_______________ kettle on and have
b)_______________ nice cup of tea.
– Good idea! There’s c)_______________ open packet of chocolate
biccies in the cupboard! What shall we drink to?
– To d)_______________ friendship!

13.I haven’t been to a)_______________ work for fourteen days
because I’ve had b)_______________ really bad back. I got
c)_______________ awful pain at the base of my spine and
d)_______________ doctor told me that I had to rest.

14.- Shall we meet at a)_______________ Burger King, or
b)_______________ new coffee house in Market Street?
– They’ve got c)_______________ offer on at the moment – if
you buy d)_______________ latte, you get two free mini doughnuts.

15.Geoffrey Chaucer was a)_______________ English poet and
philosopher who is considered by b)_______________ scholars
to be c)_______________ greatest writer of the Middle Ages.
The Canterbury Tales is d)_______________ wonderfully rich piece
of literature.

16.- Is there a)_______________ free table anywhere in this café?
– Yes, look – b)_______________ table by the window is available.
Oh – hang on – c)_______________ old feller’s just sat down.
– Just our d)_______________ luck!

Ex. 3.1.3 Reading  Print this worksheet – entitled ‘Noun Categories’ – and follow the instructions: noun-categories.

Ex. 3.1.4 Reading  Write a, an, or the in each gap, or put – to mean zero article:

1.He was born in __________ August.
2.John sells __________ bikes every day.
3.Do you want __________ spaghetti today?
4.It was __________ hottest day ever!
5.He prefers __________ Adidas.
6.I put __________ unopened letters over there.
7.Is __________ clock slow, or is it me?
8.Would you like __________ apricot?
9.We were moved by __________ kindness that he showed.
10.I got __________ puppy yesterday.

11.We’ve booked __________ taxi for you.
12.Do you believe in __________ justice for everybody?
13.Please would you put __________ rubbish out?
14.What about __________ beef for dinner?
15.Is __________ milk semi-skimmed or skimmed?
16.It seems that __________ mobiles are getting bigger rather than smaller!
17.Do you fancy __________ omelette?
18.Has __________ power come back on yet?
19.I didn’t know that __________ dictionary belonged to you.
20.Have you eaten __________ chocolate from Grandma?

21.Both of us took __________ umbrella just in case.
22.We’ll ask her for __________ information tomorrow.
23.There were __________ toys everywhere!
24.It’s so important that you tell me __________ truth about them.
25.These are __________ channels that I watch most often.
26.He lived on __________ Porter Road when I used to know him.
27.Surprisingly, __________ unemployment had fallen again.
28.I need __________ new kettle, because this one is broken.
29.Can you bring me all __________ empty coffee cups, please?
30.You are __________ first person I have truly loved!

31.We’ll be upset if he gets __________ infection.
32.Be careful! It’s made of __________ glass.
33.How essential is __________ quality to you?
34.You need to replace __________ printer paper.
35.We start to develop __________ teeth when only a few months old.
36.She found __________ pen outside.
37.I don’t like __________ peanut butter.
38.He was pleased with __________ poetry that he had written.
39.I told them about __________ Amanda.
40.Our swimming costumes were dry, but __________ children’s weren’t.

Ex. 3.1.5 Writing  Remember the main point: we know which article to use because of the type of noun and the context – general or specific. Look at the summary of rules for using articles in English from 3.1.1:

i) Underline the noun in each sentence. Say what kind of noun it is
ii) Write a, an, or the in each gap, or put – to mean zero article
iii) Write a letter A-J to show which rule the sentence follows

Ex. 3.1.6 Writing  Follow the instructions from Ex. 3.1.5:

Ex. 3.1.7 Reading  a) Read the text, which has a gap before every noun. Complete the gaps with a, an, the, or – (zero article):

Yesterday 1. ____________ Ellen went to 2. ____________ new clothes shop on 3. ____________ Bude
Street and bought 4. ____________ new dress. 5. ____________ dress was light green and had
6. ____________ white collar. She also went to 7. ____________ supermarket and bought
8. ____________ groceries. She needed to get 9. ____________ chocolate cake and 10. ____________ candles for 11. ____________ birthday party on 12. ____________ Monday. On the way home she had 13. ____________ idea and phoned 14. ____________ friend. 15. ____________ Mandy is 16.
____________ florist who works near 17. ____________ health centre. 18. ____________ Ellen asked 19.
____________ Mandy to order 20. ____________ flowers.

b) Look at the 7 statements below and say which one applies to each article in the text:

A. We use a or an because the noun is singular, countable, and in a general context. It is first mention.
B. We use the because the noun is used again – after first mention. We are already familiar with it.
C. We use the because it is logical that there is only one of these nouns, so it is something specific.
D. We use the because the noun is something specific or something familiar to us.
E. We do not use an article (zero article) because the noun is a proper noun.
F. We do not use an article (zero article) because the noun is plural or uncountable and in a general context.
G. We use a possessive adjective (e.g. my / her) because it is clear that the noun is something that belongs to somebody or is closely connected with them.

1. _________________
2. _________________
3. _________________
4. _________________
5. _________________
6. _________________
7. _________________
8. _________________
9. _________________
10. _________________
11. _________________
12. _________________
13. _________________
14. _________________
15. _________________
16. _________________
17. _________________
18. _________________
19. _________________
20. _________________