Using Articles: a, an, and the

 In Learn English

articlesThere are 2 types of articles in English grammar, definite, and indefinite.  The definite article is the word, “the”, and the indefinite articles are the words, “a” and “an”.  You may think that the size of these words— a, an, and the – 3 letters at most—make them bit part players when it comes to written and spoken English, but you’d be mistaken!

A, An, and The – Definite and Indefinite Articles

I did an article about the particular challenges that Chinese students face when learning English, and English language articles were a big stumbling block.  I’m inserting a section of this blog below, and then let’s wade a little more deeply into how, when, and why you need to, use articles correctly.


Chinese doesn’t use articles so Chinese students have a habit of omitting them when speaking or writing English.  On occasion, students will mistakenly insert an article where it’s unnecessary, perhaps because they are reminded how common article usage is in English.

“The” is the definite article; it is used to communicate that a specific noun is being talked about.  “The cat”, “the book”, “the pants”, “the honor roll”.  If you brought your roommate “a” cat instead of “the” cat you’d be presenting them with some random cat you found instead of their cat.  If you made “an” honor roll instead of “the” honor roll your parents would be a lot less proud, and probably question what exactly it was you were working so hard at in school.

The indefinite articles, “a” and “an”, are used when a noun is unspecified as above—hey just bring “a” cat.  Maybe your friend works at an animal shelter that’s trying to take in strays, or you made “an” honor roll because your friends created funny awards for classmates to help cut the tension during finals week.

Chinese ESL students can tend to treat all the English language articles as though they’re interchangeable.

Where is a baby, she needs to go to daycare?
instead of
Where is the baby, she needs to go to daycare.

My friends are buying the condo, they are looking at open houses every weekend.
instead of
My friends are buying a condo, they are looking at open houses every weekend.

English articles are 3 important little words that communicate more information than it seems!

I bet a lot of that sounds familiar to you even if you aren’t Chinese, that’s because many languages either don’t use articles or have another way of expressing the information that English language articles impart.  ESL students of every stripe can struggle with using articles correctly.

So, “the”, that word must sound familiar, it’s used in nearly every other sentence you’ll hear.  “The” is not a filler word, it lets you know that you are dealing with a particular person, place, or thing—and remember a NOUN is a person, place, or thing in English…so, “the” is always used with a noun.

Think, particular = part.  You are selecting a specific member of a group (or part of a whole), even if the noun is a plural noun it is still specific, as in:

The women all wore skirts to the event.  Women is plural, but you are still selecting a particular from the group at a particular event— Perhaps there were girls, men, and boys at the event—it was just the women who wore skirts.                                                                       

A”, and “an” announce that it is no particular member of a group is being talked about.  “A” and “an” are also used with nouns.

Think, “A” = any.  You are referring to any member of a group—any SINGLE member of a group.  “A” and “an” are not used with plural nouns.

A crazy man raved in the street outside my house for an hour!     Just one crazy man, no idea who he was, he wasn’t like the famous neighborhood crazy man—so NOT a particular man—and he raved for an hour, I’m not specifying which hours—could’ve been 3-4 am, could’ve been 9-10 pm…AND it’s “an” hour because hour begins with the silent letter “h”.

“A” is used with singular nouns that begin with any consonant EXCEPT the silent letter “h” and any noun that begins with a “y-sounded” vowel.

“An” is used with singular nouns that begin with any vowel UNLESS they begin with a “y-sound”, and it is also used with singular nouns that begin with the silent consonant “h”.


On occasion, you’ll see or hear someone use “an” with a word where the “h” is sounded, e.g., “An historic era”.  This isn’t necessarily thought of as incorrect, but yeah…it is; it just sounds grander and has been used by people we think of as well-spoken so it gets a pass.  I say stick with the rules.  English language articles will become second nature to you with a little time and practice.

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