A, an, and the: how to use articles in English

by Liz Walter​
articles_in_English
Many learners of English have problems with articles (the words a, an and the), especially when they don’t exist in their own language. This blog looks at some of the basic rules.

The number one rule is this: if a word is countable (e.g. one book, two books), you must always use an article (or my, his, etc.):

 

I read a book.

I read book.

This is true even if there are adjectives before the noun:

He drives an old car.

He drives old car.

Never use a or an with a word that is plural (e.g. books, trees) or uncountable (e.g. water, advice):

I asked her for advice.

I asked her for an advice.

Note that we use a in front of words that start with a consonant sound (a horse, a carrot) and an in front of words with a vowel sound (an apple, an elephant).

The next most important thing to understand is the difference between a/an and the. Basically, we use a/an when we don’t need to say which thing we are talking about. We use the to talk about a specific thing:

I caught a train to London. (it doesn’t matter which train)

The train was late. (that particular train was late)

We often use a when we mention something for the first time, and then change to the when it is clear which thing we are talking about:

He was talking to a man. The man was laughing.

She gave him a present. The present was very expensive.

We also use the when it is obvious which thing we are talking about or when there is only one of something:

Could you shut the door, please?

I cleaned the bathroom this morning.

He travelled around the world.

The sun is hot today.

If you stick to the rules above, you will be correct in almost all cases. However, there are a few exceptions, and the following are the most useful ones to learn:

We don’t use a/an before the names of meals:

We had lunch at noon.

We don’t use a/an before words like school, prison, or college when we are talking about them in a general way:

I hope to go to college.

He spent three years in prison.

With the word ‘hospital’, there is a difference between British and American English:

My brother’s in hospital (UK) / in the hospital (US).

We use the before the names of shops or places where we go for services when they are the ones we usually go to:

I need to go to the supermarket.

She went to the doctor’s.

101 thoughts on “A, an, and the: how to use articles in English

    1. akhilkodipaca@gmail.com

      hi, I just wondering can any help me with my question, is give me an advice is correct or give me advice

      1. Liz Walter

        It’s give me advice. Advice is an uncountable noun in English. If you aren’t sure, use the dictionary on this site – nouns with [U] are uncountable and nouns with [C] are countable.

      2. Resham Sk

        Give me “the advice “as well as Give me “advice” is correct because “the advice “means to denots the idea of specific or clear advice about which speaker is already familiar with that “advice ” is already implied to the doer or speaker before time and the speaker is wanting that advice one more . Thanks .. I hop you got it.

  1. Dear Liz,
    Thank you for your useful information.
    I have a question: what is difference between “a” and “one”, for example: “There is a cat” and “There is one cat”.
    Pls help to explain this situation.

  2. Dear Liz

    Thank you for your information.
    Please help to explain following question: What is difference between “a” and “one” in these example:
    – There is a cat.
    – There is one cat.

    Both sentences are the same meaning or not?

    Thank you in advance.

    1. Liz Walter

      You use the before a plural when you have mentioned the things before or if it is clear which ones you are referring to, exactly the same as for singular nouns. For instance: She gave me some apples. The apples were juicy.

  3. Thank you very much for this post. I have a question regarding more difficult examples (from scientific literature) where abstract terms are frequently used. A few quotes:

    “A fourth implicit prediction of the amyloid hypothesis
    (which we did not make at first) is that (1) tangle formation is a
    closer biological event to (2) neuronal cell death. This has been
    demonstrated by the (3) identification of (4) MAPT mutations in
    FTDP17-T (Hutton et al. 1998; Poorkaj et al. 1998) and the
    modeling of tangle-associated cell death in transgenic mice
    (Lewis et al. 2000). Thus the finding of MAPT mutations in
    (5) tangle-only disease is completely consistent with the amyloid
    hypothesis (Hardy et al. 1998).”

    I put a few numbers in brackets, which indicate points of my doubts. So, tangle formation is a very specific process, why there is no THE article in front of it (1), the same holds true for (2) and (4). And yet in (3) identification gets THE. While tangle-only disease (5) is not really specified (there are multiple) but here it did not get A.

    I will be very grateful if someone helps me to solve this puzzle.
    Thank you.

    1. Liz Walter

      1, 2 and 5 have no articles because they are uncountable and don’t refer to a specific instance. In this context, the author is talking about the phenomenon of tangle formation, not one specific instance of it. 4 has no article because it is plural. 3 is something I didn’t talk about in my blog, but is a common structure with nouns connected with actions followed by ‘of’: the x of something. It is demonstrated again in your text: the modeling of of …

  4. Addition to the previous comment.

    “Thus the (6) finding of MAPT mutations in
    tangle-only disease is completely consistent with the amyloid
    hypothesis (Hardy et al. 1998).

    Of course, the most important prediction of the amyloid/
    Ab hypothesis is that (7) reducing Ab and plaques would
    ameliorate Alzheimer symptoms.”

    How to distinguish when the ing-nouns get THE and when they do not. Please, see examples (6) and (7).

    Thank you very much.

      1. Azeem khan

        Dear as you said in th above rules that we uses” the” when we going usually to place or shop.
        he is going to the shop.
        then why you told the we don’t use the before college.
        as you given the example
        I hope to go to college.
        But we usally goes to college

  5. thein lwin

    Thanks ! After many years of self study in English , it’s noted that grammar and compositions knowledge is a must in order to feel exactly what the presenter means .

  6. Kalyan Sathe

    Hello
    ” Pleasure” is an uncountable noun so it is not preceded by ‘a’ but when it is modified by an adjective then ”a/n” is used before it.Why?

    1. Liz Walter

      With the word pleasure, it depends on the way it is being used. Some uses of pleasure are in fact countable. (you can check on the Cambridge online dictionary). In a sentence like ‘It was a great pleasure to meet her’, it is countable – you are referring to the single event of that meeting. However, there is a wider and rather advanced point here, which is that many uncountable nouns can be used in a countable way in a somewhat literary or formal style if they are preceded by an adjective, e.g.: Her face showed a terrible sadness./They displayed an ugly racism.

  7. ari

    hi i does 9an5 make sense? i wanted to register 9and5.com but it was taken. 9 and 5 are characters i created. so instead i got 9an5. does that work? thank you!

  8. Olu

    Dear Liz,

    Thanks for your useful tips. My question is on when to use “on” and “at”.

    e.g, when someone calls to speak to your colleague and you want to say the person has gone for lunch, do you say:

    HE IS AT LUNCH OR HE IS ON LUNCH?

  9. Pingback: Determiners (word class) | ELT Infodump

    1. Liz Walter

      I’d say ‘a European’ because the sound is like a consonant (sounds like ‘y’) even though the letter is a vowel.

  10. Sunny

    In many books since my childhood I have been reading that “The cow” Is that imply any specific cow or in general “All cows”.

    Mostly people write “The” in beginning of a sentence, may I know why?

    And one thing more, Should I write “in the beginning or in beginning.”

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, you can use ‘the’ to talk about a group of things in general, e.g The cow is a farm animal. However, this is a rather formal use. And you should say ‘In the beginning’ if you are telling a story, or ‘At the beginning’ if you want to talk about something that happened at the start of something, e.g. He comes on at the beginning of the play.

  11. Dorine

    Hi, can you please help me with this sentence.
    She wants the answer to all her questions or she wants an answer to all her questions.

  12. Niladri Chatterjee

    so useful !!! truly helped me a lot . examples worked a lot to clear few confusions !!! thanks a lot Liz !!

  13. Artyom

    Thanks! It looks easy but then I have problems again )
    For example even in that text I see line which consist: “and *the* following are the most useful ones to learn”. Why did you use “the” in the first time? About situation like this I don’t see in that lessons.

    1. Liz Walter

      It’s an example of what I described like this: ‘We also use the when it is obvious which thing we are talking about or when there is only one of something’ So in this case, it’s obvious what we are talking about when we say ‘the following’ – we know that we mean the things that we are just about to read. It’s useful to learn that phrase ‘the following’ because we always use those two words together – it can never be ‘a following’ because that wouldn’t make sense.

  14. bogdan

    Guys, hello everyone! I want to talk on english. Who else ? We may talk via skype/ My skype id: live:bodya01

    Hope we`ll speak 😉

  15. Aminata Rigbour Ghandi

    Thanks for this lectures, I learned a lot. Will you please send me the 71 thoughts on A, AN and THE. How to use articles in English.

    1. Elizabeth Walter

      a stick: Note that we use a in front of words that start with a consonant sound (a horse, a carrot) and an in front of words with a vowel sound (an apple, an elephant).

  16. Pingback: Definite and Indefinite Articles – A, An, The – Test Yourself – Academic English Editing and Proofreading Service

  17. JUANITA BOTES

    Hi Liz

    Just wanted to find out something

    Do we say – Trains are a economical way to travel
    or Trains are an economical way to travel

    Thank you

  18. Hi.. This is very useful❤
    My ques is, which article comes before ‘One rupee coin’ , ‘university’ , ‘M.A Degree’ , ‘Urdu Dictonary’ , ‘horse’
    I have a little bit confusion about these words coz in the rules of articles some nouns doesn’t need any article.. Right? So i just want to know here we used a , an , the, or nothing ? Plzz help me 😦 and thankyou in advance 👌

    1. Liz Walter

      It all depends how you are using those words. So you can say: ‘He owns a horse’ but then ‘The horse he owns is black.’ I’ve tried to explain this in the post – maybe try reading it again? Good luck!

  19. Chong Tang

    i have a question about “in hospital” and “in the hospital”. Does it just have difference between UK Eng. and USA Eng.? I remember that “in hos[ital” means one is ill and has to be in hospital. However, “in the hospital” means one just go to a hospital, i mean maybe just go to that place.

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, as I say in the post, Americans usually say ‘the hospital’ where Brits just say hospital. So Brits say things like ‘You should go to hospital’ or ‘She’s in hospital’. We’d only say ‘the hospital’ to talk about a specific hospital that we’d already mentioned ‘The hospital was close to her house’.

    1. Liz Walter

      You’re right that they are both correct. I don’t think there is any difference. I’m not sure why you can omit the article in this case, when you couldn’t say ‘because he is teacher’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s