What are articles?
Not to be confused with something you would find in a magazine, grammar articles are the words “a,” “an,” and “the.” They’re similar to adjectives in the sense that they modify nouns. They do not modify verbs, adverbs, etc., even though they may be placed before them. For example, “The gray cat is happy.” The is modifying “cat,” not “gray.” Let’s look at these articles individually.
A/An (The Indefinite article)
A and an are used for non-specific, singular, countable nouns. A countable noun is what it sounds like–a noun that you can count. Some words are abstract and cannot be counted, such as “poetry,” “love,” “research,” “beer,” etc. Words that you do not use “s” for or pluralize are typically uncountable nouns.You will not use a or an for any uncountable nouns. Ok, moving on. A and an are called the indefinite articles because they do not refer to specific things. They refer to any member of a group. For example, let’s look at the following picture.
If this pile of pens was in front of us, I could say “Hand me a blue pen.” There is a group of blue pens and you can hand me any one of those–there is no need to pick a specific one. You could pick the left one, right one, middle, whatever. But you would be handing me one, unspecific, blue pen.
However, a can be used to show that someone/something is a member of a larger group. Using the blue pens, for example, I could say, “That is a blue pen.” Here, it shows that it is one of a greater group of blue pens.
Now, you use a when the word following it begins with a consonant. You use an when the following word is a vowel. For example, I would say “Give me a red apple,” even though the noun it’s working with–apple–begins with a vowel. The word following the article begins with a consonant. The same is true for an. “I want an orange cat.” Since “orange” begins with a vowel, we use an instead. This is true for word SOUNDS as well. For example, “Europe” starts with a vowel, but has a consonant “y” sound, so you would say something like “a European.” The a/an rule also applies for acronyms or abbreviations. If I wanted to abbreviate New York University, I might say “An NYU education stays with you forever.” Even though “N” is a consonant, say it out loud. It begins with an “eh” sound–“ehn.” As such, the appropriate article is “an.”
If you’re confused about a and an, say the word out loud and ask yourself if it SOUNDS like a vowel or consonant–then use the appropriate article.
The (The definite article)
The is used for plural nouns, uncountable nouns, and specific nouns. Because it is used with specific nouns, it is called the definite article. Let’s look at another pen example:
Ok, this is a GROUP of pens. To use the definite article, I would pick a specific pen. “I want the green pen.” Notice there’s only ONE green pen, so you know exactly what pen I’m referring to. Now, I could use a, but I wouldn’t be referring to a specific pen. “Hand me a pen.” You would then give me the yellow, pink, red, or green pen. It doesn’t matter what one.
I would also use the if I wanted more than one pen. “Hand me the pens.” In this case, you would give me the yellow, pink, red, and green pens. The is used with specific plural nouns. If I was just talking to you in the street, I might say something like “I need apples to bake a pie.” Notice there is no article. However, if we’re in a store and there are apples in front of us, I might say “Please get the apples for me.” It’s a little confusing, I know.
Another instance is when you have already identified something. Let’s say you’re typing an essay about where I live. You might say something like, “Kelly’s apartment is very nice.” Since you’ve already identified what apartment you’re talking about (Kelly’s apartment), you could continue to say “The apartment is green.”
There are some other random definite article rules in relation to proper nouns, and I’m going to plow through those quickly:
The is not used with:
- names of cities, towns or states
- names of streets
- names of lakes or bays (unless it is a group of lakes, like The Great Lakes in NY)
- names of mountains (unless it is a group/range like The Rocky Mountains)
- names of continents
- names of islands (unless is is a group of islands, like The Hawaiian Islands)
- names of MOST countries–there isn’t a very specific rule for what ones have the and what ones don’t
- names of holidays
The is used with:
- names of rivers, oceans, and seas
- names of points on a globe (like The North Pole)
- names of large, geographical areas (like The North)
- names of deserts
- names of forests
- names of gulfs
- names of peninsulas
- names of religious texts
- proper nouns that contain “of” in the name (The fourth of July, The United States of America)
There are a few cases where articles are not used at all. The most prominent case being indefinite plural nouns. For example, “I want two cats.” I don’t care what kind of cats they are, I just want two of them! 😀 Another example of where an article is not used is indefinite uncountable nouns. Uncountable nouns can be definite or indefinite depending on the situation. For example, if we are eating breakfast, I might ask you, “Could you hand me the bacon?” Although “bacon” is uncountable, in that situation we know exactly what bacon I’m talking about. However, if I needed to buy bacon, I might say “I need to go to the store to get bacon.” We do not know exactly what kind of bacon I am getting and thus omit the article.
Flow chart and final thoughts
I made you a simple flow chart for article usage with non-proper nouns. Please make sure you have read all of the above before using it–otherwise you might not know the difference between “definite” or “indefinite” nouns. This is just a quick, basic idea of how articles work, and please remember that some of these “rules” may be broken. I hope the chart and this post helps you. Good luck!