How to Use Definite and Indefinite Articles: A, An, The

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The definite and indefinite articles "a," "an," and "the" are basic building blocks of the English language. They provide specificity, both in writing and in conversation, by indicating which object or objects are being referenced. In other words, definite and indefinite articles let the listener know who or what you're talking about. Using them depends on two things: whether a word is singular or plural, and whether a noun is definite or indefinite.

Beyond that, there are just a few important rules to remember.

Using Definite and Indefinite Articles

"A", "an", and "the" can all be used with nouns and noun phrases. "A" and "an" are used with countable nouns, which may be singular or plural and can be counted, such as "egg" or "women." However, you would not use these definite articles with an uncountable noun, such as "flour," which does not have a plural form and refers to an indistinct quantity. The definite article "the" can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns, however, as well as with other noun types in English.

Other rules for using these articles include:

  • Use the indefinite article "a" when referring to a single, nonspecific object that begins with a consonant.
    She has a dog.
    I work in a factory.
  • Use the indefinite article "an" when referring to a single, nonspecific object that begins with a vowel.​
    Can I have an apple?
    She is an English teacher.
  • Use the definite article "the" when referring to a specific object that both the person speaking and the listener are familiar with.
    The car over there is fast.
    That teacher is very good, isn't he?
  • The first time you reference something with an indefinite article, use a definite article when you repeat that object. 
    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 Mt. 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 enjoys 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.

Quiz

Complete the following sentences using "a," "an," and "the," or chose "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 _____ Mt. Rainer in _____ Washington State.
  6. I work as _____ English teacher in Portland, Ore.
  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)
  1. She bought ______ book in _____ shop. ______ book was about _______ man who lived in Portugal. _____ man was very interesting.

Answers

1. a / a / the

Use "a" for both "house" and "city" because you do not know which one is being referred to. Use "the" with 'United States' because it is a collection of states.

2. a / the

Use the indefinite article because you do not know which friend. Use the definite article because the singer is referred to specifically.

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 the indefinite article 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 the preposition "by" with modes of transport.

9. the / the

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

10. a / a / the / a / the

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

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Beare, Kenneth. "How to Use Definite and Indefinite Articles: A, An, The." ThoughtCo, Feb. 21, 2018, thoughtco.com/when-to-use-a-an-the-1208969. Beare, Kenneth. (2018, February 21). How to Use Definite and Indefinite Articles: A, An, The. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/when-to-use-a-an-the-1208969 Beare, Kenneth. "How to Use Definite and Indefinite Articles: A, An, The." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/when-to-use-a-an-the-1208969 (accessed April 26, 2018).