Articles: A Quick Guide for English Language Learners
For most native English speakers, using the articles a, an, or the is a no-brainer; the proper use of these words is intuitive to us because we have spoken English all of our lives. But for those non-native English speakers, articles can be daunting and confusing. This short blog post is designed to help those non-native speakers who struggle with articles and to generate confidence in all English students.
In general, articles indicate a noun is about to appear. Remember, a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. A noun may immediately follow an article, or a modifier may be placed in between the article and its noun. For example:
The dog OR The incredibly shaggy dog
(art.)(n.) (art.) (modifier) (n.)
Now, there are two types of articles: definite articles (the) and indefinite articles (a, an).
The indefinite articles a and an are used with singular count nouns whose identity is not known to the reader. A count noun is just that—a person, place, thing, or idea that can be counted (e.g. one girl, two girls; one apple, five apples). So, when you are stating a noun that has not been previously mentioned (like when you are stating it for the first time) use a or an. For example, let’s say I am telling my friend about what I did last night: “Last night, Caitlyn and I were hungry, so we looked for a restaurant that was affordable.” In the conversation, I had previously not mentioned any specific restaurant (indefinite), and since the noun restaurant is ‘countable,’ I used the article a. If I used a noun or modifier that started with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u), I would need to use an.
The indefinite articles a and an are not used with singular noncount nouns. A noncount noun is a very tricky word to identify for non-native speakers. But, there are some characteristics of noncount nouns that can help us identify them and avoid putting a and an in front of them. In general, noncount nouns identify something intangible, abstract, or unquantifiable.
Categories of noncount nouns:
- Abstract concepts (love, beauty, freedom, poverty)
- Activities or sports (golf, running, reading, basketball)
- Academic subjects (mathematics, biology, history)
- Food (lettuce, bread, sugar, flour)
For example, since lettuce is a noncount noun, I would not put an a in front of it. (E.g. I would not say, “My sandwich had a lettuce on it.” Rather I would say, “My sandwich had lettuce on it.”) Many times with noncount nouns, people use a quantifier to express an amount. In the last example, I could have said, “three pieces of lettuce,” or, “a lot of lettuce.”
The definite article the is used with most nouns whose identity is clearly known to the reader. Many times, the identity of a noun is known because for the following:
- The noun has been mentioned already (The house we lived in last year).
- A superlative like best, worst, most, or least is used with the noun (The most intelligent person).
- The noun is unique or one-of-a-kind (The bright sun).
The definite article the is not used with most plural nouns. Many times, sentences speaking generally about a plural noun do not need any article at all. For example, “Pencils are often used for taking notes,” or, “Birds generally migrate south during the winter.”
Knowing when to use an article and which kind can be seemingly impossible for any English language learner, but hopefully with these four rules, you can feel more confident about them. Often, the more you read English, the better your writing improves because you can see how English sentences are constructed in a more natural way. I would advise anyone who is confused about articles, to find a book and notice how a, an, and the are used. The more reading you do, the easier you can identify when to use the appropriate word.
Happy writing…and reading!
Hacker, D. (2009). The Bedford Handbook. 7th Ed. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s.