There are two types of articles:the definite article (the) and the indefinite articles (a, an). We usually use the indefinite article first to mention some person or thing. By doing that, we don’t have to be clear about which particular person or thing we are referring to. When we refer to the same person or thing again, we use the definite article the to indicate the person or thing already mentioned.
There are times when we don’t have to use any one of the articles. Such non-use of the article is given the name zero article, so we are actually using the zero article when we are not using an article. Having a clear understanding of the different articles enables us to choose the right articles to use.
For more details, proceed to the subsections in this lesson:
Definite article: the
The, the definite article, is one of the most common, if not the most common, words in English. The identifies a definite or particular noun that we know of because it has been mentioned. It is not about a noun that has not been mentioned beforehand or a noun that we are unaware of.
o He watched a movie. The movie was about the death of a ghost. (We are clear about which movie ‘the movie’ mentioned in the second sentence refers to.)
o I saw an old man with an eagle. Theeagle was perching on his right shoulder.
o I received the letter. The letter is from the former classmate.
1. The first sentence has to use ‘a letter’ not ‘the letter’ as no one, except the receiver of the letter, knows which letter is referred to.
2. The second sentence correctly uses ‘the letter’ because we know ‘the letter’ is the same as ‘a letter’ mentioned in the first sentence.
However, we still don’t know which former classmate when it refers to ‘the former classmate’. This is not correct, so the sentence should be rewritten correctly as follow:
· I received a letter. The letter is from a former classmate.
We use the:
when there is only one such person, place or thing
· the Pope, the President of the United States, the North Pole, the earth, the sky before names of famous buildings, etc
· the Eiffer Tower, the Great Wall of China
before a singular noun that refers to a whole class or group of people or things
· the middle class, the homeless, the Canadians, the Hindus
before the special names of rivers, seas, oceans, mountain ranges, groups of islands.
· the Nile, the Dead Sea, the Pacific Ocean, the Himalayas before certain organizations, political parties, and countries
· the United Nations, the Republican Party, the USSR, and the UAR before nouns such as places which we know of
· We arrived early at the ferry terminal for our trip to the island.
· We went to the cinema, after which we went to the stadium for a football match. before abbreviations and initials of countries
· the BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation), the EEC (the European Economic Community).
· the UAR., the UK, the USA and the USSR
2. Indefinite Article: a, an
The indefinite articles a andan are used to introduce something that has not been mentioned before. The indefinite articles are not used before a plural noun. We use a before a word that begins with a consonant. We use an before a word that begins with a vowel, or a word that begins with a consonant but has vowel sound (e.g. hour, honour, etc)
We use a:
when we mention something for the first time
· I saw a dog
before a word which begins with a consonant
· There is a woman waiting for you.
before a word with a long sound of u
· a university, a uniform, a useful book, a European, a unique
· It would be a unique opportunity to travel in space.
before the word one because one sounds as if it begins with a W (wun)
· a one-way street, a one-eyed monster, a one-year course, a one-week holiday, etc
· I have a one-way ticket to travel from one place to another, as I don’t intend to visit a place twice.
The indefinite article a also means one. We can use a orone as follow:
· He keeps a/one dozen snakes as pets.
· I have told you a/one hundred times to leave me alone!
Sometimes, it is better to use a instead of one.
· She wiped up the vomit with a mop.
· Better than: She wiped up the vomit with one mop.
· He had a bath before he went to bed.
· Better than: He had one bath before he went to bed.
We can use a before a proper noun.
· A Mr Brown called to ask when you are going to return the borrowed money.
· I still remember it was on a December morning when I drove through the fog into a tree.
We use an
before a noun which begins with a vowel sound
· They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away.
before a singular noun (person or thing) to mean only one in quantity
· She’san only child.
before a noun that is representative of a group, species, etc
· An ostrich has only two toes on each foot.
before a noun that begins with a silent h
· an hour, an honest man, an heir, an honour, an honourable man, etc
· It is going to close in an hour’s time.
· I can’t read your writing. Is this an h or what?
before abbreviations, some of which begin with a consonant
· I have an X-ray on my lungs.
· I saw an UFO hovering above my house.
· He wanted to be an MP but was not elected to be one.
3. Zero Article
We use the term zero article when no article is used. Articles are not always necessary.
o He travels to work by train.
o Not: He travels to work by a/the train.
o She loves taking photos of caterpillars.
o Not: She loves taking photos of the caterpillars.
before names of materials
o Gold is found in Australia.
o Not: The goldis found in Australia.
before abstract nouns used in a general sense
o Money cannot buy happiness.
o Not: Money cannot buy the happiness.
before proper nouns
o He is a fan of Michael Jackson.
o Not: He is a fan of the Michael Jackson.
o She gave birth to twins in June.
o Not: She gave birth to twins in the June.
o She came down with measles and had to stay in bed.
o Not: She came down with the measles and had to stay in bed.
before the names of cities, states, countries, islands or mountains
o India achieved independence in 1947.
o Not: The India achieved independence in 1947.
o Mount Everest is the world's highest mountain.
o Not: The Mount Everest is the world's highest mountain.
4. Articles before Countable and Uncountable Nouns
A and anhave the same meaning and as they both mean one, they are used only before a singular countable noun (a hat). We do not place either of them before a plural noun or an uncountable noun.
· He who kills animals illegally is a poacher.
· His father works as an accountant in a multi-national company.
We use the before the following types of nouns: Singular countable nouns
· The serial killer has struck again.
Plural countable nouns
· Rebel forces killed two of the soldiers.
· The sand blown by strong wind covered the entire area.
· The Brown family you have been waiting for has arrived.
When we use the zero article before the following types of nouns:
Plural countable nouns
· Dogs bark all the time.
· Most of them who spend time at this coastal resort are tourists.
Uncountable nouns (always singular)
· Rice is currently in short supply in the province.
· Drug overdose caused his death.
· Rome is a great city.
· Her first language is English.
5. Same Noun Used with all Three Articles
Same noun used with all three articles conveys different meaning:
· He is at a school. (We don’t know which school.)
· He is at the school. (We know which school.)
· He is at school. (He is a teacher or student and is teaching or learning.)
· I buy the paper every day. (Newspaper)
· The professor presented a paper on recent findings about cancer cells. (A piece of writing)
· The children are learning the art of folding paper into decorative objects. (Material)
It helps to observe the following:
1. When we use two or more adjectives to describe the same person or thing, we use the article only before the first adjective.
· He talked to a tall and blonde woman. (He talked to a (one) woman who was tall and blonde.)
2. When we use two or more adjectives to refer to more than one person or thing, we use the article before each adjective.
· He talked to a tall and a blonde woman. (He talked to two women, one of whom was tall and the other was a blonde.
6. Position of an article in a sentence
The articles – a, an, the – are used before a countable noun. Unlikea and an, the article the can come before an uncountable noun. There are some words we may use before the articles.
Articles before a countable noun.
All three articles a, an, the are used before a countable noun or before an adjective followed by a noun. We commonly use them to begin a sentence. The nouns used here are goal, priest, apple, friend, fireworks, and building.
· A last-minute goal put them through to the final. (Last-minute is an adjective)
· A priest was called in to exorcise the ghost.
· An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
· An old friend of mine was released from prison last week. (Old is an adjective)
· The fireworks lit up the sky.
· The high-rise building was gutted by fire. (High-rise is an adjective)
Article before an uncountable noun.
The is the only article that is used before an uncountable noun. It can be anywhere in a sentence except at the end. The uncountable nouns used here are butter, flesh, sand, snow, cream, and skin.
· The butter melted in the heat.
· The flesh of the fruit is white.
· The sand was then mixed to the cement.
· They are playing in the snow.
· The salesperson claimed the cream made the skin age more slowly.
We cannot use a before an uncountable noun, but we can if we have a measured quantity of the uncountable noun. For example, it's wrong to say or write 'a cheese'. Instead, we can use 'a chunk/hunk/lump/piece/slice of cheese'.
· A block of ice
· A cube of sugar
· A hunk of cheese
· A layer of dirt
· A piece of cloth
· A pinch of salt
· A slice of bread
Words that come before the articles.
· Many a time he would talk when his mouth was full.
· How much money have you saved? Quite a bit.
· Half an orange is enough for me.
· What an awful lot of difference it will make to my life if I don't pass the exam.
· All the puppies got stolen.
· Both the papers had difficult questions.
· No, we don't have to walk that far. Rather the opposite in fact.F
Articles Exercise 1
Exercise based on the opening text in Thanks a Million
Please complete the following exercise using a/an/the/0 (no article) in the underlined spaces where appropriate. Change capital letters to lower case letters at the beginning of a sentence if necessary.
Ms Parrot, (1) ___ most famous lady detective of (2) ___ twenty-first century, was born in (3) ___ United Kingdom in (4) ___ 1960s. Since then, she has been to many countries, including (5) ___ Portugal, Singapore and Australia, and has lived in (6) ___ northern hemisphere and (7) ___ southern hemisphere, as well as on (8) ___ equator. She has never been to (9) ___ Philippines or (10) ___ United States, but she speaks (11) English, French and Portuguese. Like Sherlock Holmes, (12) ___ famous detective, she plays (13) ___ violin, and sometimes practises up to five times (14) ___ day. She is also (15) ___ only person in (16) ___ world to have performed Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture [a long piece of music] in one breath on (17) ___ recorder.
She has been (18) ___ detective for thirty years and claims that although many people think that being (19) ___ detective is (20) ___ piece of cake, detectives generally work very hard and it’s not all fun and games. (21) ___ detective is someone who solves mysteries, and (22) ___ people who contact Ms Parrot have some very unusual problems. Little information is available about some of (23) ___ cases she has solved, but quite (24) ___ few of her most famous cases have attracted worldwide attention and she has been offered up to (25) ___ thousand dollars (26) ___ hour to help solve mysteries such as (27) ___ case of (28) ___ Australian owl in (29) ___ uniform. (30) ___ bird laid (31) ___ egg in (32) ___ European nest in less than (33) ___ hour after its arrival. What (34) ___ strange problem!
With great (35) ___ modesty, she has either declined such (36) ___ fee or donated (37) ___ money to (38) ___ poor, or to (39) ___ Grammar Survival Fund, believing that (40) ___ detective should use their skills for (41) ___ common good.
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