by Alysia Bartley

Articles in the English Language – Who Needs Them Anyway?

A smiling Asian student is studying.

English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education – sometimes it’s sheer luck, like getting across the street.  E.B. White

American writer (children’s classics: Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan, a contributor to The New Yorker magazine, and a co-author of the English language style guide, The Elements of Style, which is commonly known as Strunk & White)

It is quite easy and natural for a native English speaker to use the articles (a, an, or the) correctly as he/she has most likely spoken and listened to English since birth. They don’t have to get lucky to use the language correctly. Somehow it just sounds right. Even if the reasons behind why certain articles are used or not used can’t be explained, the native English speaker will use these words correctly. Somehow it just sounds right.

But for the non-native speaker and predominately the ESL student who may not even use articles in their native language, articles might be one of the most difficult parts of speech to use in the English language. It may be hard to hear if the article is being used correctly or not. Articles are found in many Indo-European and Semitic languages but are absent from some large languages of the world, such as Indonesian, Japanese, Hindi and Russian. Furthermore, not all languages have both definite and indefinite articles. A few languages may distinguish additional subtypes of articles according to gender, number or case, or according to adjacent sounds.

Hopefully this article will help you better understand what an article is and how to use them correctly. Without the proper use of articles, English sounds gritty… like something is broken waiting to be fixed. Articles in the English language are needed by everyone who speaks English. There is no need to worry. Learning and consciously applying a few basic principles can help you improve the use of articles (a, an, or the) significantly. With time and practice, using articles correctly will become second nature for you, too. You won’t have to rely on luck. Somehow – it will just sound right.

So what exactly are articles?

  1. Articles in the English language are the same for any gender, or number of people or things:  the girl, the man, the children, the dogs and the cars; a girl, a man, a dog and a car; an acrobat, an eight-year-old, an olive.
  2. Articles precede a noun. A noun is a part of speech that is a person, place or thing. Nouns can follow articles directly. For example: The student wanted to learn English.  (Student is the noun following the article “the”.) Or a modifier may be placed in between the article and its noun. For example:  The interested student wanted to learn English. (Interested is the modifier between the article “the” and the noun “student”.)

What types of articles are there?

There are two types of articles:  definite (the) and indefinite (a, an).

Definite articles

  1. The definite article “the” is used with most nouns whose identity is clearly known to the speaker. For example it could be something that is familiar with those that are talking like The coffee shop is open now. If this is said, then the speaker assumes the listener knows which coffee shop he/she is talking about. So definite articles are used to show the noun is specific. We know what coffee shop is open.
  2. These articles are also used to show something that has already been talked about like There is an apple on the counter. The apple was picked from the tree this morning.
  3. Definite articles are also unique like The evening sun set early tonight. There is only one sun and we know what it is. You can also say The moon, The sunrise, The Earth, The world, etc.
  4. The sentence may contain a superlative with the noun. Superlatives are words used to compare like best, least and most. For example, He was the best friend I ever had and It is the lowest mountain. Definite articles are used to show the noun is particular. We know the friend is the “best” friend. We know the mountain is the “lowest”.  “Best” describes the specialties of the friend in particular, while “lowest” describes one attribute of the mountain.
  5. Definite articles are used with ordinal numbers. Please turn to the third chapter, It is on the first page and Read the third book.
  6. You use “the” to describe whole groups of people like The Italians, The Irish, The working class, The poverty-stricken.
  7. “The” is used with decades or groups of years as in My grandfather was born in the fifties and Computer technology has exploded in the 21st century.

Regarding geographical use of the article “the”

  1. Use “the” with names of specific rivers, seas and oceans: The Nile River, The Red Sea, The Atlantic Ocean
  2. Use “the” for specific directions on a map or globe: The Equator, The South Pole, The Prime Meridian
  3. Use “the” for particular geographical areas: The West, The Middle East, The Northwest
  4. Use “the” for landforms that use a proper noun: The Sahara Desert, The Gulf of Mexico, The Redwood Forest, The Iberian Peninsula

Regarding geographical use and NOT using the article “the”

  1. Most countries and territories: France, England, Canada, Israel, Turkey; however The Netherlands, The United States, The Philippines, The Dominican Republic
  2. Most names of village, towns, cities, states: Manitoba, Seattle, Seoul
  3. Most streets:  Main Street, Nicolet Boulevard, Woodland Terrace, Forest Avenue
  4. Most names of lakes and bays (except for a group of lakes like The Great Lakes): Lake Erie, Bay of Fundy
  5. Most names of mountains (except for ranges of mountains like The Alps or unusual names like The Matterhorn): Mount Fuji, Mount Everest
  6. Names of continents:  Asia, Europe
  7. Most name of islands ((except for island chains like The Aleutians, The Canary Islands): Easter Island, Key West)

Indefinite articles

  1. The indefinite articles “a” and “an” are used with count nouns (person, place or thing) that can be counted.  For example, you can have one school, two teachers, five books, etc. So you can have a school, a teacher, a book, etc. And you can have an easel, an egg, an igloo, an apple, an orange, and an umbrella.
  2. When you are talking about something and use a noun that has not been mentioned before and the person is not familiar with it, you use the article “a” or “an”. For example if you were telling a story about going to a movie, you should say I went to a movie theater last night to see movie. This refers to any movie theater and any movie. The listener will not be able to tell from your sentence which movie theater you went to nor what movie you saw.  The word choice implies there are several movie theaters and several movies. Other examples include Would you like a drink of water?, I’ve got a good English class, and An eagle was flying over my house.
  3. If the noun starts with a vowel sound (a, e, i, o, u) you would use the article “an”. It does not mean that the word needs to start with one of those short vowels; it means that the sound of the word sounds like a short vowel. So the word “honest’ that begins with a silent “h” sounds like it starts with the short vowel “o”. You would then say My friend is an honest person, There is an hour before the recital, It is an honor to meet you.

However, if the noun is modified by an adjective, then the article “an” is used only if the adjective begins with a short vowel sound. (Examples:  There was a boiled egg in the pan. (i.e. Even though egg has a short “e” sound, the word is not next to the article. Since boiled starts with “b” then there is no need to use the article “an”. Use “a” instead.) Note in the next two sentences that one word begins with the letter “u” is short (unusual) and one that begins with the letter “us” is long (unicorn). Therefore, you would choose the correct article to reflect this: The birthday present was an unusual gift. A unicorn is a mystical creature.

  1. The indefinite articles are not used with singular non-count nouns. In general, non-count nouns identify something unquantifiable, abstract or something intangible. Here are some examples of each:

Unquantifiable (any number): lettuce, bread, sugar, flour, sand, water, concentration

Abstract (not specific): freedom, beauty, love, hope, faith, luck

Intangible (can’t be held; not having physical presence): air, information

So let’s look at a few sentences to help you better understand this concept:

I put lettuce on my sandwich. (Not: I put a lettuce on my sandwich.) You can also say I put a piece of lettuce on my sandwich or I put some lettuce on my sandwich.

There is freedom in that country. (Not: There is a freedom in that country.) You can also say There is a lot of freedom in that country or There is little freedom in that country.

Animals need air to breathe. (Not: Animals need an air to breathe.) You can also say Animals need some air to breathe or Animals need a lot of air to breathe.

  1. Uncount nouns often have phrases before them like “a lot of”, “a piece of”, “a bottle of”, and “a grain of”.  In addition, instead of an article preceding these nouns, the noun can also be preceded by the words this, that, these, those, her, your, my, some, his, our, your, their, its, any, either, each, every, may, few, several, all, no, etc. These words are called determiners and are other parts of speech, mainly adjectives and possessive pronouns.

More Uses of Indefinite articles

  1. With nationalities and religions: Mr. Keaton is an Englishman and Kathryn is a Catholic.
  2. With musical instruments: The performance featured a violin and a cello.
  3. With names of the days of the week: I was born on a Friday and We will have the next meeting on a Monday, too.
  4. When referring to a kind of, or example of something: The elephant had a long trunk and The car was a very new one.
  5. With singular nous after the words “what” and “such”: Mrs. Bowen is such a nice person and What shame that had to happen!

Omission of articles

  1. Names of languages and nationalities (unless you are referring to the population of the nation like The Spanish):  Chinese, Russian
  2. Names of sports: hockey, soccer, baseball, swimming
  3. Names of academic subjects: history, computer science, mathematics
  4. Names of meals:  breakfast, lunch, brunch, supper, dinner
  5. With people’s singular names (unless you are referring to plural like The Johnsons are coming to dinner): John is coming for dinner.
  6. With titles of names (exception:  The Queen of England and The Pope): Prince Charles, President Kennedy, Dr. Schweitzer
  7. After the possessive case using “s”: It is Mary’s car and There is John’s house.
  8. With professions and names of jobs:  teaching, engineering, etc. as in Mr. Johnson is going into teaching and Mary is studying engineering.
  9. With names of stores:  I want to stop at Starbuck’s on the way to school.
  10. With fixed expressions beginning with a preposition: by car, by train, by air, on foot, on holiday, on air (broadcasting), at school, at work, at college, in church, in prison, in bed.
  11. With months of the year and seasons: I was born in August and His favorite time of the year is fall.

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I hope that this article will help you better understand the use of articles in the English language. Perhaps when you read some of the examples, you could hear that they just sounded right. So I encourage you to keep studying, keep practicing, and keep positive. I know that it seems like it is a long process to learn the English language, but an important thing is that you keep trying. Looking back, you can be proud of the English that you have learned.

Write to me any time and let me know how things are going.  I would like that.

Leah Noble Attendance bedtime - girl and cat at home in bed

About the author:

Alysia is a co-founder of TalktoCanada. Since founding the online English teaching company in 2006, she has gone on to teach over 10,000 hours of online classes and managed large and small English training projects around the world. During her free time you can find her listening to the latest business book, travelling and going to the gym.