Articles: the”, “a”, “an”, and the zero article.

Articles are like mosquitos, they are small things which can have a large impact. However, unlike mosquitos, there are not many of them. The most common articles are “the”, “a” and “an”. They often are often a source of great worry to the non-native speakers and they are often used incorrectly. However, they can be mastered with a little effort and thought.

What is an Article?

An article is a word and they are used in conjunction with a noun, or noun phrase, to indicate the type of reference to the noun. Telling the listener, if the noun is a specific item or more general item.

The most common classification of Articles is as definite (The) or indefinite (A and An). There are other articles at work, and this is where it gets a little confusing. There are also the zero article, or no article, and the negative article which is often referred to as a determiner by some linguists. Understanding these as articles can also help in identifying how to use the more common articles.

Zero Article

Let’s look at zero articles. Sometimes when learning it is often easier to know when not to use something than to know when to use something, so we will start with when not to use an article. This is known as the zero article.

We don’t use an article when we talk about things in a general term: When we talk about things, in general, we use plural nouns and uncountable nouns.

  • I saw cats in the street
  • Fish are swimming in the water
  • Happiness is never easy to find

We usually don’t use articles when we talk about geographical locations. Such as countries and continents. Towns, cities, streets, and roads.

  • She is now living in Switzerland
  • I am going to London
  • Oscar lives on Sesame Street
  • The Simpsons live in Springfield

As well as single lakes and single mountains:

  • The house is on Lake Louise
  • Mt Cook is New Zealand’s highest mountain

Of course, there are always some exceptions, and when lakes and mountains are recognised as a single entity they use the article “The”

  • The Alps are in Switzerland
  • Mt Everest is in the Himalayas
  • The Great Lakes are in North America

As with countries, we don’t use an article before languages

  • I speak English
  • Thai is a difficult language

Companies and Universities, Colleges and Schools also do not need an article.

  • I went to Melbourne University
  • He is going to Yale
  • My daughter goes to Sacred Hearts College
  • Alberta Junior High School has a great music teacher

However when the name starts with University, College or School, we place “the” before the name.

  • He went to the University of Cambridge
  • I want to go to the College of Applied Arts
  • The School of Rock sounds like a great place

We don’t use an article when we talk about sport or games, except when we look at the sport as a single entity or is specific to a particular type of sport.

  • I like watching football
  • I can play chess
  • World of Warcraft is a very popular game
  • The football known as soccer is the only true football

An article is also not used before some places, like when the place is considered an institution, such as church, home and Rotary and with some “forms” of transport: In this case, we distinguish the difference between the form of transport and the actual transport.

  • I go to church every Sunday
  • I am a member of Rotary
  • I travel by plane

Articles are not used in acronyms when they are pronounced as a word rather than individual letters.

  • We will go to UNESCO for a school field trip.
  • NASA has a great space exploration program
  • Switzerland is not part of the EU.
  • The RSPCA helps thousands of animals

The indefinite articles, A and An

A and an are used when the point is not clear, or subject or object and is generally not known by the receiver of the message. They are also used to replace the word one (1) (1). I ate one (1) banana = I ate a banana

When to use A or An

The easiest one, of these two, to remember is that “an” is used when it is followed by a word which has a vowel sound at the beginning of the word, i.e. A E I O and U.

  • an apple
  • an elephant
  • an interest
  • an octopus
  • an umbrella

Sometimes the word has a vowel sound, but starts with a consonant;

  • an hour,
  • an honest.
  • an x-ray.

In this case, the idea of what to use will change depending on which native speaker you may be talking with. In most cases use an, if the next sound is a vowel sound. e.g. some people use the h sound in herb, whilst others see it as a silent h sound. Therefore some people will say “a herb” whilst others will say “an (h)erb”

“A” is used for all words starting with a consonant sound. Once again it’s the sound, not the letter. e.g. university has a Y sound at the beginning, so we use:

  • a university,
  • a uniform or,
  • a unicorn.

The definite article “The”

Let’s look at the definite article. The” is what is known as a definite article. This means it is used when the speaker and the listener definitely know (defined) what is being talked about. This is different from “A” or “an” when what is talked about is not clear or not known.

“The” is used when the subject is clear to the receiver, or it is common or communal knowledge. However the problem occurs when the sender of the message believes the “cat” is common knowledge, but the receiver does not know the “cat”. The receiver will accept that “the cat” is common knowledge, just not to themselves. I remember when I was young, my mother would always say, “It is in the cupboard in the kitchen”. Now the kitchen is common knowledge, we know which kitchen, there is only one in our house, and we generally would not be talking about a kitchen in someone else’s house. However, the cupboard is not clear, there are several cupboards in the kitchen. My mother knew which cupboard she was talking about, but to me it was not clear. So grammatically, she should have said, “It is in a cupboard in the kitchen” or “It is in the cupboard under the sink in the kitchen”.

Let’s look at these 2 examples

  • A cat sat on the mat. – Which cat is unclear, but we know which mat
  • A cat sat on a mat. – The cat and the mat are unclear
  • The cat sat on a mat. – We know which cat, but not sure which mat
  • The cat sat on the mat – We know which cat and we know which mat.

Mike:       A cat sat on a mat.

Kate:       Which cat

Mike:       That cat you can see there. (You will now notice that the cat has been introduced)

Kate:       Oh! So the cat sat on a mat?

Mike:       Yes! That mat over there

Kate:       Oh! That mat, so the cat sat on the mat.

Mike:       Yes right

Notice once the item has been identified and defined, then we change from using “a” (or an) to “the”.  

“The” is also used when we define a noun by using a relative clause after the noun. In this case, we would use “the” before introducing the noun. The relative clause helps to identify which noun we are talking about. Thus defining the noun.

  • The movie [I saw at the cinema] last week
  • The student [who likes country music]
  • The actor [that played alongside Julia Roberts] in Pretty Woman

“The” is also used when the noun is unique. Uniqueness often depends on the ext. In my example with my mother, kitchen is unique, there is only one kitchen in the house, although there are literary millions of kitchens around the world, nevertheless, in this context this kitchen is unique.

So let’s look at some things which are unique. Something which there are many, but the context makes it unique.

  • The President
  • The Prime Minister
  • The temple I go to pray
  • The computer on my desk

The confusing thing here is when we make the plural or uncountable noun into a single entity

  • The cats (in the alley), don’t like the dogs (in my house). There is only one group of cats in the alley. There are only one group of dogs in my house.
  • I hate the cheese in the refrigerator
  • The teachers who don’t speak English
  • The water in the Ocean is blue

“The” is also used when the noun is defined by using the word “of” after a defining noun.

  • The health of the patient
  • The colour of money
  • The fish of the sea
  • The emptiness of space

This may not be used when the defining noun is a collective noun

  • A pride of lions vs the pride of lions
  • A troupe of monkeys vs the troupe of monkeys

Or when the noun is defined by a quantifying noun

  • A lot of people
  • A few of the students studied hard
Spread the love