When do I use 'a', 'an' and 'the'

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Question: When do I use 'a', 'an' and 'the'

The use of 'a', 'an', and 'the' depends on whether a word is singular or plural. The choice between 'a', 'an' and 'the' depends on whether a noun is definite or indefinite. Here are some quick definitions:

singular = one of something

plural = more than one of something

definite article = a definite article refers to a specific person, place or object or a specific group of people, places or objects.

indefinite article - an indefinite article refers to something in general. Indefinite articles are not used in the plural forms.

  • Use 'a', 'an' and 'the' with nouns or noun phrases (nouns are one of the parts of speech in English). 
  • 'A' and 'an' are only used with countable nouns
  • 'The' can be used with a wide variety of noun types in English.

Tips and Rules on A An The

Here are the rules for when to use "A, An or The":

  • a = indefinite article (not a specific object, one of a number of the same objects) with consonants
    She has a dog.
    I work in a factory.
  • an = indefinite article (not a specific object, one of a number of the same objects) with vowels (a,e,i,o,u)
    Can I have an apple?
    She is an English teacher.
  • the = definite article (a specific object that both the person speaking and the listener know)
    The car over there is fast.
    The teacher is very good, isn't he?
  • The first time you speak of something use "a or an", the next time you repeat that object use "the". 
    I live in a house. The house is quite old and has four bedrooms.
    I ate in a Chinese restaurant. The restaurant was very good.
  • DO NOT use an article with countries, states, counties or provinces, lakes and mountains except when the country is a collection of states such as "The United States".
    He lives in Washington near Mount Rainier.
    They live in northern British Columbia.
  • Use an article with bodies of water, oceans and seas
    My country borders on the Pacific Ocean
  • DO NOT use an article when you are speaking about things in general. Make sure to use the plural form of countable objects.
    I like Russian tea.
    She likes reading books.
  • DO NOT use an article when you are speaking about meals, places, and transport
    He has breakfast at home.
    I go to university.
    He comes to work by taxi.
  • It's important to remember that both you AND the listeners must understand which specific object, person or place is intended. ​

A An The Quiz

Complete the following sentences using 'a', 'an', 'the' or no article

  1. I live in _____ house in _____ city in _____ United States.
  2. Jennifer has _______ friend who knows ______ famous singer over there.
  3. I'd like _____ new TV. Let's go shopping!
  4. Peter enjoys drinking _______ Italian wine and eating _______ French food. 
  5. My aunt told me that she once climbed _____ Mount Rainer in _____ Washing State.
  6. I work as _____ English teacher in Portland, Oregon.
  7. Do you have ______ keys to ______ car? (Wife asking husband)
  8. I go to work _______ bus.
  9. _____ director of _____ company isn't very friendly, is he? (one colleague speaking to another)
  10. She bought ______ book in _____ shop. ______ book was about _______ man who lived in Portugal. _____ man was very interesting.

    Answers / Explanations

    1. a / a / the

    Use 'a' for both 'house' and 'city' because you do not know which house and city I am referring to. Use 'the' with 'United States' because it is a collection of states.

    2. a / the

    Use 'a' because you do not know which friend. Use 'the' because the singer is referred to with 'over there' making the singer specific.

    3. a

    Use 'a' because you haven't chosen a specific TV yet.

    4. Nothing

    Do not use an article when speaking about uncountable objects in general (Italian wine, French food).

    5. Nothing

    Do not use articles with mountains, cities or states.

    6. an

    Use 'an' before a vowel, use 'an' because I am not the only English teacher in Portland.

    7. the / the

    The husband and wife know which care is referred to.

    8. Nothing

    Use nothing when using 'by' with modes of transport.


    the / the

    Use 'the' for both as the colleagues know who the director and the company are.

    10. a / a / the / a / the

    Use 'a' the first time you introduce a new object. Use 'the' when referring to the object, person or place you have referred to previously.

    Continue to study articles. Check your understanding with this quiz.

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    Your Citation
    Beare, Kenneth. "When do I use 'a', 'an' and 'the'." ThoughtCo, Mar. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/when-to-use-a-an-the-1208969. Beare, Kenneth. (2017, March 21). When do I use 'a', 'an' and 'the'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/when-to-use-a-an-the-1208969 Beare, Kenneth. "When do I use 'a', 'an' and 'the'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/when-to-use-a-an-the-1208969 (accessed January 19, 2018).