How to use articles: another look (1)

Sergio Mendoza Hochmann/Moment/Getty Images

by Liz Walter

Back in August 2015, I wrote a post about using articles – the words a, an and the. That post has had the most hits of any published on this site, so it is obviously an area that learners of English are interested in. You can read the post here:

If you are not sure about using articles, do go and read it, as it contains all the most important rules. However, looking back over it now, I’m struck by the number of interesting comments and queries, so in this post and the next one, I am going to follow up on some of these because I think (hope!) a lot of people will find the answers useful.

1) A or an? There seems to be confusion here between letters that are vowels or consonants and vowel or consonant sounds. We use a in front of consonant sounds and an in front of vowel sounds. So, for instance, someone asked whether to use a or an before the abbreviation ‘MBA’. The answer is an because the sound of the first letter is /em/, so it begins with a vowel sound, even though the letter itself is a consonant.

Similarly, we use a in front of a word such as ‘European’ because the initial sound /j/ is a consonant sound, even though the letter it starts with is a vowel.

2) A or one? There was a question about the difference between ‘There is a cat’ and ‘There is one cat’. The answer is that we would only say ‘one cat’ if the number of cats is important:

Tom has one cat and three dogs.

3) The + plural noun One reader asked when to use the with plural nouns. The rule is exactly the same as for the with singular nouns: we use it when it is clear which things we are talking about, perhaps because we’ve already mentioned them or there is only one instance of them:

The oranges I bought were very juicy. (we are referring to specific oranges and the listener/reader knows which they are)

The stars are bright tonight. (there is only one set of stars in our sky so we know which stars are being talked about)

4) Pleasure or a pleasure? The question was about why we say e.g. ‘It was a great pleasure’, when ‘pleasure’ is uncountable. The answer is that in fact ‘pleasure’ – like many nouns – can be both countable and uncountable. In the dictionary on this site, such words have the label [C, U].  We would not usually use an article with the uncountable sense:

The emotion I felt was pleasure mixed with anxiety.

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:

Her face showed a terrible sadness.

They displayed an ugly racism.

5) The cow = all cows? This is another advanced point. In rather formal situations, we can use ‘the’ + singular noun to refer to all things of that type:

The cow is a farm animal. (in less formal terms, we say: Cows are farm animals).

That’s more than enough for one post! Look out for my next post for some additional detailed information about articles.

29 thoughts on “How to use articles: another look (1)

  1. Michał

    I am very happy to find and read this post on using an, a, and the.
    At last I understand why the phrase ” a pleasure of life” can be correct.

    Referring to the post I copy below 2 sentences:
    The cow is an animal.
    Cows are animals.
    The third sentence is mine.

    A cow is an animal.
    That sentence seems to be right. Could you please tell us when I can use it? What is the precise meaning?
    All the best,

    1. Liz Walter

      We do sometimes use an indefinite article to refer to all things of one type, but it is less common than the two sentences in the article.

  2. Amazing, Liz. I’m an English teacher also, and I always struggle with so many doubts my students have. I defend the hypothesis that this happens due to the lack of articles in some languages. For me, Portuguese speaker, it is a way easier to see where I should use articles or not.

  3. Mona Brewer

    Very interesting..
    I need help prepare for an exam to become a medical translator English to Arabic.
    Can you help?
    Thank you.🌺

  4. Julius Li

    A better Article . Liz , Where I can learn the differences between vowels and consonants … I usually used “an” in front of words which start with “A、E、I、O、U” , Obviously I was wrong .

    1. Liz Walter

      Well usually that will be correct, Julius, but sometimes, as I explain above, the vowel letters don’t make a vowel sound.

      1. Julius Li

        Yeah . I see that . Therefore I asked you , Where I can learn the differences between vowels and consonants…I have to know exactly differences … Thank you .

  5. Monserrat Martínez

    Oh my God! How many time I haver ever lost searching for an explanation like this!
    Thank you a lot, Liz! You are amazing!

    I know that sooner I will have an English accent, jiji!


  6. You have stated, ” Similarly, we use a in front of a word such as ‘European’ because the initial sound /j/ is a consonant sound, even though the letter it starts with is a vowel.” I have not understood how the word “European” has a “/j/” sound? Please clarify. Thanks.

  7. Michal

    Hi Liz,

    In my mother tune [ European ] the sound at the beginning is clear long vowel while in English I hear [ E u…] as a broken vowel. As far as the skills of my ears I cannot say that [ EU…] is a consonant.

    If a more competent person will give professional explanation, I will appreciate it.

    Best regards,

    1. Liz Walter

      Do you know the IPA phonetic system? The beginning of European is /jʊə/ (UK) /jʊr/ (US). In other words, the very first sound is the same as ‘y’ in ‘yellow’, which is a consonant, not a vowel.

  8. M

    Hi Liz,
    I know “a European” is correct, but “an European” sound better to me. I feel the same about most words that do not begin with a vowel but have vowel sound at the beginning. How do I get over this?

    1. Liz Walter

      I’m not sure! I think you just need to believe that ‘an European’ sounds really weird to a native speaker of English, and I promise you that it does!

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