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Articles: A, An & The

Every time you use a noun, you must decide if you need to put an article in front of it or not.  These tiny words —a, an and the — don't even exist in many other languages, so they can cause plenty of trouble for non-native students.  In addition, some nouns don't need articles while other similar nouns need articles.  The Chart below shows you some of these similarities and differences.

Two articles — a and an — are called indefinite because each refers to non-specific, singular nouns.  If you decide a particular word needs an indefinite article, use a before a word that begins with a consonant. Use an before a word that begins with a vowel sound. The word honor, for example, begins with the consonant h, which is silent. Honor, therefore, sounds as if it begins with a short o sound -- a vowel sound -- so it takes an instead of a.


I saw a good movie last night.

I fried an egg this morning.

I have an hour to study.

I want a home in the country.

The other article—the—is called definite because it refers to something specific, which can be either singular or plural:  the sun, the stars, the student center, etc.


I hope the stars appear in the sky tonight.

Sometimes, a singular noun doesn't need an article at all if it can't be confused or mistaken with anything else: gravity, America.  Sometimes it's okay to use the word some as an article: some news, some surprise, some medicine. Sometimes, nouns can use articles or not and yet have the same meaning.


In the winter, the weeds still grow.

In winter, weeds still grow.

Finally, the following sample shows the different meanings a sentence can have depending on which article is used.


I am invited to:

a party. (This means you probably don't know about this party.)

the party. (This means you probably know about this party.)

parties. (This means I often get invited to various parties.)

The following chart gives categories and examples of where to use or not to use articles.

Don't Use An Article Use An Article
Personal names: Jean Smith A family as a group:  the Smiths
Title and name:  Prince Charles, Archbishop Rigali, President Bush Title without the name: the Prince of Wales, the archbishop of St. Louis, the president of the United States
Cities, states, countries, continents or individual islands:  St. Louis, Missouri, Vietnam, South America, Jamaica Collectives, plural place name or groups of islands:  the United States of America, the United Arab Emirates, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the Bahamas
Individual mountains: Mount Ranier, Mount Everest Mountain ranges: the cascade Mountains, the Himalayas
Individual lakes:  Lake Michigan Collectives or group of lakes:  the Great Lakes
Beaches:  Daytona Beach Rivers, oceans, seas, and canals:  the Mississippi River, the Pacific Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal
Parks: Forest Park Unique geographic areas:  the Arctic Circle, the South Pole
Spacecraft:  Challenger, Sputnik Ships, Trains and Aircraft:  the Titanic, the Orient Express, the Spirit of St. Louis
  Place or geographic names that follow the pattern "the ___ of ___":  the Gulf of Mexico
Streets, roads and avenues:  Olive Street, Manchester Road, Highway 70. Major rods with descriptive names:  the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Northwest Tollway, the Innerbelt
Directions:  north, northwest, northeast, south, southwest, southeast, east, west REgions or areas:  the Pacific Northwest, the South Pacific, the East Coast, the Middle East.
Name of College or University: St. Louis Community College the University of College or university:  the University of Missouri
School subjects: history or Math School departments: the History Department, the Math Department
Languages:  German, English the ______ language:  the German language
Games and Sports: chess, soccer Musical instruments: the saxophone, the piano
Places showing an activity happens there:  class, work, bed, home, college Exceptions:  the university, the hospital (British English does not use an article with these two words.) 
Holidays: Labor Day, Memorial Day Holiday exceptions:  the Fourth of July
Months and Days:  August, Tuesday Months and days (spelled out):  the month of August, the first Tuesday of the month.
Magazines:  Newsweek, People Newspapers:  the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Riverfront Times
Diseases (chronic or long-term illnesses):  kidney failure, AIDS, cancer Temporary illness: a cold, the flue, a sprain ankle
Meals in a general sense:  Everyone should eat breakfast.  What's for lunch? Specific meals:  I ate a big breakfast.  He cooked a good dinner.
  A group of people with a common characteristic in which the adjective describes the group: the French, the poor.
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Adapted from: Elbaum, Sandra. Grammar in Context, Book 3. Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers, 1996.

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