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Articles

Articles in English are a way of defining what we are talking about in a way that is either specific (e.g. the dog) or general (e.g. an ice cream). This article will introduce articles and the different types, explain when and how we use them, and provide plenty of examples.

Articles in English grammar

An article is a type of determiner. Determiners modify words placed before a noun or noun phrase to establish (determine) 'who' or 'what' the noun refers to. There are four types of determiners in English; articles, (the/a/an), possessives (his/her/their), demonstratives (this/that/those), and quantifiers (some/all/none).

Today, we will be learning about articles.

There are three articles in the English language;

  • The
  • an
  • an

These are divided into two categories;

  • Definite articles

  • Indefinite articles

Now we have a basic idea of what articles are, take a look at the examples given below and see if you notice a pattern:

  • The dog would not let go of the stick.
  • Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle.
  • The Ritz is a place of luxury that the wealthy frequently visit.

In each example given, it is clear that articles always preface (come before) a noun. The article used will determine whether the noun is specific or unspecific.

Articles, Image of a castle, StudySmarterFig 1. An unspecific princess lives in an unspecific castle

With this information in mind, let's look at the different types of articles.

Types of articles

We've established that an article is a type of determiner that comes before a noun or noun phrase to show whether it is specific or non-specific. For specific nouns, we use the definite article, and for non-specific nouns, we use the indefinite article.

The definite article

The definite article is the word 'the'.

This article shows us that the noun being discussed is specific, but what does that mean? The definite article is used when;

  • The noun in question has been mentioned before and is known to the reader.

  • The noun is unique or assumed to be the only one (e.g. the sun).

  • We want to identify or single out a particular noun.

Let's look at some examples.

I want a bottle of water. Can you grab the one in the fridge?

When the subject is first mentioned, the speaker uses the indefinite article. Now that the subject has been made clear to the listener, the speaker uses the definite article to refer to the subject.

Excuse me, where is the bathroom?

Here, the definite article has been used as the speaker is assuming there is only one bathroom in the restaurant.

The lorry drove away.

Here, the definite article indicates that the speaker is referring to a specific lorry that drove away, not just any lorry. If the speaker was referring to any lorry, they would use the indefinite article 'a'.

Definite articles can occur before singular or plural nouns. For example, 'The lorries drove away' or 'Can you grab the ones in the fridge?' is grammatically correct.

The indefinite article

There are two words that are classed as indefinite articles 'a' and 'an'.

Indefinite articles are used to refer to nouns that are non-specific or are being mentioned for the first time. 'A' is placed before nouns beginning with a consonant sound, and 'an' goes before nouns beginning with a vowel sound.

Here are examples of both:

A cat followed me home.

The speaker is referring to 'a' cat, so the indication is that this is the first time this cat is being mentioned and that it has no personal specific connection to the speaker. The indefinite article a was used as the noun cat begins with a consonant sound (/k/).

Can you pass me an apple?

The indefinite article has been used here as the speaker doesn't mind which apple they are given. They are being unspecific. The article an was used as the noun apple begins with a vowel sound (/ˈæ/).

Indefinite articles only occur before singular nouns. To say 'An elephants followed me home' would be grammatically incorrect.

Indefinite articles and plural nouns

The indefinite article a and an can only be used to modify singular nouns. When discussing plural nouns, we either drop the article altogether (e.g. Elephants followed me home) or use the definite article the when appropriate (e.g. The elephants followed me home).

Indefinite articles and the letter H

There are cases when the article an is used before a word that begins with a consonant letter and not a vowel. This is because article use is dependent on the sound of a letter rather than the letter itself. The most common example of this is the letter h.

Take a look at the following example:

An hour after I arrived a house fell down.

The first article 'an' comes before the noun 'hour' despite it beginning with a consonant. This is because the word 'hour' (/aʊə/) starts with a vowel sound (/ˈa/).

The second article is 'a' not 'an' because the word 'house' (/haʊs/) begins with a consonant sound (/h/).

Indefinite articles and the letter U

Sometimes the indefinite article 'a' is used before words beginning with the letter u - again, this is to do with the sound of the letter.

Look at the following example:

He is a Ukrainian man.

The article a has been used here because 'Ukrainian' (/juːˈkreɪnjən/) begins with the semivowel sound /ju/, which we treat as a consonant.

Now look at this example:

I need an umbrella.

The article an is used as 'umbrella' (/ʌmˈbrelə/) begins with the vowel sound /ʌ/ (uh).

Articles, Image of rainy Japan, StudySmarterFig 2. I need an umbrella... any umbrella will do!

Indefinite articles and abbreviations

Sometimes, the use of 'a' or 'an' will depend on the pronunciation of an abbreviated phrase.

Compare this sentence which uses an abbreviated phrase to the following sentence which uses the full phrase:

I saw a UFO outside!

When the phrase is abbreviated, we use 'a' because 'UFO' here begins with the semivowel sound /ju/ (remember, we treat these the same as consonants).

I saw an unidentified flying object outside!

When the phrase is unabbreviated, we use 'an' because 'unidentified' (/ʌn aɪˈdentɪfaɪd/) begins with the vowel sound /ʌ/.

Articles and adjectives

Occasionally, an article will come before an adjective, not a noun. For example:

The tall man looked over the crowd.

She is looking at an elegant lady.

It is a horrible painting.

In these cases, both the article and the adjective 'modify' the nouns and have created noun phrases. In other words, they give contextual information about the noun they are prefacing.

Articles - Key takeaways

  • An article is a type of determiner that comes before a noun to show whether it is specific or non-specific.
  • There are three articles in the English language: the/a/an.
  • The English language has two main types of articles: definite and indefinite.
  • The definite article the is used before specific, unique, or known nouns.
  • The indefinite articles a/an are used before unspecific and general nouns.
  • The article a comes before nouns beginning with a consonant sound and an before a noun beginning with a vowel sound.
  • Articles can also come before adjectives in a noun phrase.

Frequently Asked Questions about Articles

An article is a type of determiner that goes before a noun or noun phrase to show whether that noun is specific or non-specific.

In the sentence 'The lazy dog eats his bone' 'The' is the article prefacing the noun 'dog'.

Definite articles and Indefinite articles.

The three articles in English are the/a/an

Final Articles Quiz

Question

Which of these words are articles?

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Answer

The

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Question

An article is a type of...

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Answer

common noun.

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Question

Is 'the' a definite or indefinite article?

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Answer

'The' is a definite article.

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Question

Fill in the blanks: An article always modifies a ____.

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Answer

Noun or noun phrase

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Question

Which type of article specifies that the noun being discussed is limited to one particular thing. 

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Answer

The definite article - 'The'.

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Question

Which type of article only comes before single nouns?

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Answer

The indefinite article only comes before single nouns.

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Question

Fill in the blanks: __ is placed before nouns beginning with a consonant, and ___ is placed before nouns beginning with a vowel.   

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Answer

'A' is placed before nouns beginning with a consonant sound, and 'an' is placed before nouns beginning with a vowel sound.   

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Question

Which indefinite article should be used here and why?:


I just saw __ unicorn outside!

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Answer

'A' because unicorn begins with the semivowel sound /ju/
 

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Question

Which indefinite article should be used here and why?:


You will likely need __ X-ray to examine the broken bone.

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Answer

'An' because X-ray begins with a vowel sound - /eks/

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Question

Correct the use of articles in this sentence:


I read an novel recently called 'the Handmaid's Tale'.

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Answer

I read novel recently called 'The Handmaid's Tale'.

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Question

What determines whether the definite article is capitalised or not?

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Answer

Whether the noun it modifies is a proper noun or a common noun.

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Question

True or False: There are two articles in the English language: proper and common.

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Answer

False - There are two types of articles in the English language: definite and indefinite. 

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Question

Fill in the blanks: By modifying the noun, an article provides _________ __________ about the noun it is prefacing.

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Answer

contextual information

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Question

True or False: Which definite article you use depends on whether the noun begins with a vowel or consonant sound.

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Answer

False - Which indefinite article you use depends on whether the noun begins with a vowel or consonant sound.

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Question

Fill in the blanks: 

The ________ article is used when the speaker has made the subject (noun) clear to the listener.


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Answer

definite

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Question

Is this sentence correct or incorrect?;

'It's an honour to meet you'

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Answer

Correct.

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Question

Is this sentence correct or incorrect?

'it was a honest mistake'

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Answer

Incorrect.

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Question

Which word class do articles belong to?

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Answer

Determiners

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Question

Choose the correct article:

'I've been looking at __ moon for hours'

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Answer

the

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Question

Choose the correct article:

'I need __ break'

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Answer

a

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