There are two types of articles in English: Definite and indefinite.
Articles are a type of adjective and a type of determiner. They are always used with a noun. Some singular nouns require the use of an article.
The definite article
The definite article is the and it always comes before a noun (the word that follows it as always a noun). It refers to a specific person, place, or thing. We use the when we believe the listener/reader knows exactly what we are referring to – either because it has already been mentioned or when it is clear from the context.
- the Statue of Liberty (there is only one in the world)
- the Sun (only one)
- I saw a car yesterday. The car was green. ( the specific car that I saw yesterday)
We also use the definite article with:
- countries whose names include words like kingdom, states or republic: the United Kingdom; the kingdom of Nepal; the United States; the People’s Republic of China.
- countries which have plural nouns as their names: the Netherlands; the Philippines
- geographical features, such as mountain ranges, groups of islands, rivers, seas, oceans and canals: the Himalayas; the Canaries; the Atlantic; the Atlantic Ocean; the Amazon; the Panama Canal.
- newspapers: The Times; The Washington Post
- buildings or works of art: the Empire State Building; the Mona Lisa;
- organizations: the United Nations; the Ironworkers’ Union.
- hotels, pubs and restaurants*: the Ritz; the Plaza; the Wild Boar.
*Note: We do not use the definite article if the name of the hotel or restaurant is the name of the owner, e.g. Brown’s; Brown’s Hotel; Morel’s; Morel’s Restaurant, etc.
- families: the Obamas; the Jacksons
- superlative adjectives: the fastest car, the most intelligent woman.
- musical instruments: I play the piano; She is learning the guitar.
- system or service: Call the police; I heard it on the radio. Check the computer.
The indefinite article
The indefinite article a or an is used to refer to any one person, place or thing. Words that begin with consonant sounds use a (bus, car, university), while words that begin with vowel sounds use an (actor, expert, hour). The indefinite article can also be used to show that something belongs to a specific group. For example, ‘The car is a Ford’ tells us that the particular car we are referring to belongs to a group of cars called Fords.
- a car – the indefinite article shows that it could be one of a group of cars.
- an elephant – the indefinite article an is used before the vowel sound to make it easier to say.
- a union – the sound of the letter U in union is the same as the Y in You so we can see it has a consonant sound.
- an umpire – the sound of the U in umpire is ‘uh’ – a vowel sound.
Articles and adjectives
If a noun is preceded by one (or more) descriptive adjectives, the article goes before the adjective. This creates a noun phrase “article + adjective + noun.” In this case the choice of using of the indefinite article a or an depends on the adjective.
- a blind umpire
- an obnoxious boy
When we are talking about things in general and the listener/reader does not know exactly what we are referring to, we can use an uncountable noun or a plural noun with no determiner. Some words take a definite article when a particular one is being referred to (life, home, school) and the appropriate indefinite article when referring to one of a group. When these words are used to talk about a general concept (idea not thing or place) we don’t use an article. This is known as the zero article. We use the Zero Article
- To talk about plural and uncountable nouns or when talking about things in general:
- I’m afraid of heights
- Milk is very good for you
- I hate cheese.
- Health and education are very important.
- Before countries, towns, streets, languages and single mountains:
- I’m from Ireland.
- She speaks French.
- I live on Main Street.
- Before some places and with some forms of transport:
- I live at home with my parents.
- I went downtown yesterday.
- I came here by car.
- We went to Miami by plane.
- In exclamations with what + uncountable noun:
- What beautiful weather!
- What loud music!
- What disgusting food!
Determiners are always placed before a noun – they help to define it!
A determiner is used to modify a noun. It shows reference to something specific or something of a particular type. This function is usually performed by articles, demonstratives, possessive determiners, quantifiers, or interrogatives.
There are four demonstrative determiners in English: this, that, these and those. They are used to convey an idea of the distance between the speaker and the person or thing that is being referred to. This (singular) and these (plural) are used to refer to things that are nearby. That (singular) and those (plural) are used to refer to things that are farther away.
- This car is mine. (The car is nearby)
- Those cars are yours. (The cars are not close to the speaker)
Possessive adjectives – my, your, his, her, its, our, your, their – modify the noun following it in order to show possession (ownership). They should not be confused with possessive pronouns (mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs), which replace the noun completely.
- My car is red. (The car belongs to me)
- Her hair is pretty.
Numbers and Quantifiers
Cardinal and ordinal numbers and other words that express quantity are considered to be determiners when they appear before a noun. Examples of quantifiers include:
one, five, seventh, some, any, few, little, more, much, many, each, every, both, all, enough, half, little, whole, less etc.
Beware of determiners such as much (singular) and many (plural) that can only modify either singular or plural nouns.
- one happy child (cardinal number)
- seventh heaven (ordinal number)
- much happiness (uncountable, singular noun)
- many cars (countable, plural noun)
Interrogative determiners are what, which, and whose. They are used before a noun to ask a question. What and which are similar but what is used to ask a question when there is an unknown number (or infinite) of possibilities for an answer. Which is used when the choices are limited. Whose asks about ownership.
- What language are you studying? (many possibilities)
- Which card came from your aunt? (limited possibilities – small number of cards)
- Whose car is that? (who owns the car)