Definite and Indefinite Articles

Articles – definite and indefinite

A quick and simple guide to the definitive and infinitive article

What is an article?

Basically, an article is an adjective. Like adjectives, articles modify nouns. English has three articles: ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘an’. We use ‘the’ to refer to specific or particular nouns; We use ‘a’or ‘an’ to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. We call ‘the’ the definite article and ‘a/an’ are called indefinite articles.

  • the = definite article
  • a/an = indefinite article

Indefinite Articles: a and an

‘A/an’ are used to refer to one non-specific or non-particular member of the group.

  • For example, ‘I would like to go see a movie.’ (Here, we’re not talking about a specific movie. We’re talking about any movie.)

‘A’ and ‘an’ are used to refer to one non-specific item or member of a group.
For example:

  • ‘My children want a puppy for Christmas.’
    A puppy, any puppy, not one specific puppy.
  • ‘Please, call a doctor!’
    We are not asking for a specific doctor; any doctor will be okay.
  • ‘When I was at the zoo, I saw a tiger!’
    There may be several tigers at the zoo, but we only saw one.

Before vowels producing a ‘y’ sound (as in ‘you’), ‘a’ is used, rather than ‘an’, and we use ‘an’ if the next word starts with a silent ‘h’.

  • a unit
  • a unicorn
  • an hour

The indefinite articles ‘a’ and ‘an’ are also used to indicate professions or membership of a group:

  • I am a teacher, Paul is an engineer. (Professions)
  • Michael is an Irishman. (Michael is a member of the people known as Irish.)
  • Silvio is a Buddhist. (Silvio is a member of a group of people called Buddhists)

‘A/an’ can only be used with countable nouns.

  • ‘I need a bottle of water.’
  • ‘I need a new car.’

Definite Article: ‘the’

‘The’ is used to refer to one specific noun, or a specific member of a group identified by the speaker.
For example:

  • Susan reads the bible every night. (We use ‘the bible’ because we are talking about a specific book.)
  • I just saw the most popular movie of the year. (There are many movies, but only one movie can be the most popular.)
  • Whose is the blue Volvo parked outside? (There are many cars outside, but only one blue Volvo)
  • What was the name of the footballer who scored against Chelsea yesterday? (there were many football players, but only one scored against Chelsea yesterday)
  • Excuse me, can you tell me where the train station is? (There are many train stations, but only one in this town)
  • The dog that bit me was black and white. (We are talking about one dog; the dog which bit me)
  • Here’s the book I bought.
  • The cat is on the roof.
  • He said he would bring the money.
Geographical nouns

There are some specific rules for using ‘the’ with geographical nouns.
We don’t use ‘the’ before:

  • Names of most countries/territories: Italy, Mexico, Bolivia; BUT we say the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the United States, the United Kingdom
  • Names of cities, towns, or states: Rome, London, Paris
  • Names of streets: Oxford Street, 5th Avenue
  • Names of lakes and bays: Lake Ontario, Lake Geneva except with a group of lakes like the Great Lakes, the Lake District
  • Names of mountains: Mount Everest, Mount Fuji except with ranges of mountains like the Andes or the Alps or unusual names like the Matterhorn
  • Names of continents (Asia, Europe)
  • Names of individual islands (Easter Island, Maui, Key West) but we use ‘the’ with island chains; the Aleutians, the Hebrides, or the Canary Islands

We use ‘the’ before:

  • Names of rivers, oceans and seas: the Nile, the Pacific
  • Specific points on the globe: the Equator, the North Pole
  • Geographical areas: the Middle East, the West
  • Deserts, (most) forests, gulfs, and peninsulas: the Sahara, the Persian Gulf, the Black Forest, the Iberian Peninsula
Omission of Articles

Common nouns that don’t take an article are:

  • Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian (but we use ‘the’ when referring to the people of the nation: ‘The Spanish are known for their hospitality.’)
  • Names of sports: football, rugby, cricket
  • Names of academic subjects: mathematics, engineering, history, science