Definite and Indefinite Articles; The, A, and An Never to be Confused Again

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

Knowing when to use definite and indefinite articles or when not to use any article at all is a bit tricky for some students who are learning English. In this article, we go over all these articles and simply explain them. Also, to make sure you absorbed all the information provided in this article correctly, we have added a short quiz to test yourself out at the end of this article.

So let’s get started.

Table of content:

Definite Article; The

Before getting started, there are certain terms that we’re going to be using so much in this article, and you need to be familiar with them to better understand this topic, and these are:

The termIts definition
Consonant letterThese include any letter in the English alphabet other than vowels (a, e, i, o, and u).
VowelsIn English, there are five vowels which are a, e, i, o, and u.
Singular nounA singular noun indicates only one thing. For example, an apple, a cookie, a cat, or an egg.
Plural nounA plural noun indicates more than one thing. For example, three eggs, five apples, two cats, and many cookies.
Countable nounThese are things that you can count using numbers. They can be singular or plural.
Examples of countable nouns include:
One banana – two bananas.
One apple – three apples.
One cup – four cups.
Uncountable nounThese are things you can’t count using numbers. They come only in the singular form, and they don’t have a plural form.
Examples of uncountable nouns include:
Milk, water, oil, air, rice, butter, music, sand, money, luck, work, traffic, weather, etc.
Proper nounThe name of a particular person, place, or thing is called a proper noun. For example, London, Stockholm, Sarah, and Joseph.
Some basic terms and their definition

The definite article in English is “the”, and it’s used in general when talking about a specific thing that the speaker and the reader or the listener know well.

When to use it

We use the definite article “the” in the following situations:

  • With nouns that have already been mentioned before.
  • With unique nouns and titles. As in the sun, the president, the capital of Egypt.
  • With superlatives as in the biggest, the shortest, the best.
  • To talk about specific times of day like the morning and the evening.
  • With specific nouns (when the speaker and the listener know the thing they are talking about).

Where to use it

The definite article could be used before many types of nouns. It could be used before singular or plural nouns as well as countable and uncountable nouns.

Example sentences:

  • The car I bought last month broke down.
  • The moon was full last night.
  • Did you read the book I gave you last week?
  • Where is the bathroom, please?
  • I didn’t like the film we saw yesterday.
  • She goes to work in the morning.

Note that:

  • Unlike (in the morning, afternoon, and evening), we don’t say “in the night”, but we say “at night” instead.

Indefinite Article; A and An

Both indefinite articles “a” and “an” share the same rules when it comes to when to use them, but they differ only in which nouns they go before. They both mean “one”. For example, the sentence “I have a pencil” is the same as “I have one pencil”.

When to use them

Whether it’s “a” or “an”, they are both used in the following situations:

  • With nouns that are being mentioned for the first time. Keep in mind that once you’ve mentioned this noun, you could then refer to it using the definite article “the”. These nouns have to be singular and countable.
  • When describing non-specific nouns.
  • With jobs and job titles.
  • With certain expressions of frequency like; once a week, twice a day, three times a year.

Where do they go in a sentence?

We use the indefinite article “a” before words that begin with a consonant sound. On the other hand, the indefinite article “an” comes before a word that begins with a vowel sound.

It’s so important here to distinguish between what’s meant by a sound and a letter. For example, the word university begins with a vowel letter, yet it’s pronounced as the letter “y”. This means it begins with a consonant sound, and that’s why it takes the indefinite article a instead of an. Also, the word hour begins with a consonant letter, but it’s silent, so the first sound we hear when pronouncing it is the next one which is a vowel sound. That’s also why it takes an instead of a.

  • A + consonant sound (a cat, a book, a school, a university, a young man, a tram).
  • An + vowel sound (an orange, an umbrella, an hour, an old lady, an apple, an insect, an egg).

Example sentences:

  • I saw a woman yesterday. The woman was reading a book. (notice how we introduced the woman with the indefinite article “a”, and then once we’ve identified her, we can use the definite article “the”)
  • I’d like to take a cup of coffee. (notice that here we ordered a cup of coffee which is a non-specific thing, it’s any cup of coffee)
  • She is a doctor. (a job)

Note that:

  • We can’t use any indefinite article before a plural or uncountable noun.
  • If you have a countable plural noun, you can’t add a or an before it. We use some instead if the sentence is positive and any if it’s negative. For example, I have some apples/ I don’t have any apples.
  • You can also use some and any with uncountable nouns, as in she saved some money/ she didn’t save any money.

Now it’s time to wrap up all what we’ve learned in a simple table:

The article AAnTheNo article
When to use it1. If we don’t specify a thing (we are talking about something in general).

2. When introducing someone or something for the first time (the listener does not know the thing or the person that the speaker is talking about).
1. If we don’t specify a thing (we are talking about something in general).

2. When introducing someone or something for the first time (the listener does not know the thing or the person that the speaker is talking about).
To talk about a specific thing that both the speaker and the listener know.When we are talking about the general idea or our thoughts of something in general.
where to use itBefore a singular countable noun that begins with a consonant sound.Before a singular countable noun that begins with a vowel sound.Before any noun, whether it’s singular, plural, countable, or uncountable.Before plural or uncountable nouns.
Example sentences1. I have a problem.
2. There’s a car in front of our house.
1. She doesn’t have an answer.
2. I would like to buy an air fryer.
1. Have you fed the cats?
2. Open the door, please.
1. I need help.
2. Gas is expensive.
3. Life is hard.
4. I don’t drink coffee.
Notes:We can’t use it before plural or uncountable nouns.We can’t use it before plural or uncountable nouns.
A comparison between definite and indefinite articles

Note that we do not use an article in the following situations:

  • When talking about general facts. For example, fruit is healthy, or lions are dangerous. We couldn’t add a/ an/ the before the words (fruit and lions) since these are general statements.
  • With certain proper nouns. These are nouns that refer to a specific person, place, or thing. For example, India, Japan, Charles Dickens, and so on.
  • There are a few proper nouns that still take the definite article, which include; The United Kingdom, The United Arab Emirates, The European Union, The Netherlands, The Phillippines, and The United States of America. But don’t forget that these are the exception, not the rule.
  • With names of streets, parks, schools, universities, companies, or other institutions since these are also considered proper nouns.

Now it’s time for a fun video to review all the things you’ve learned in this article,

Articles in English; a, an, and the

Let’s put what you’ve learned into practice;

Q (1). I’d like ___ cookie.

  1. A.
  2. An.
  3. The.
  4. No article.

Q (2). I bought ___ coffee machine yesterday. ___ coffee machine was so expensive.

  1. A, the.
  2. An, the.
  3. The, a.
  4. No article.

Q (3). Do you want ___ apple?

  1. A.
  2. An.
  3. The.
  4. No article.

Q (4). I haven’t visited ___ Tunisia before.

  1. A.
  2. An.
  3. The.
  4. No article.

Q (5). I’d like you to meet ___ friend of mine.

  1. A.
  2. An.
  3. The.
  4. No article.

Q (6). She noticed that ___ pages were missing from the report.

  1. A.
  2. An.
  3. Some.
  4. No article.

Q (7). I need ___ envelope.

  1. A.
  2. An.
  3. Some.
  4. No article.

Q (8). He’s afraid of ___ rats.

  1. A.
  2. An.
  3. The.
  4. No article.

Q (9). She is ___ engineer.

  1. A.
  2. An.
  3. The.
  4. No article.

Q (10). There aren’t ___ apples in the fridge.

  1. A.
  2. Some.
  3. Any.
  4. No article.

The correct answers:

Q (1) – 1

Q (2) – 1

Q (3) – 2

Q (4) – 4

Q (5) – 1

Q (6) – 3

Q (7) – 2

Q (8) – 4

Q (9) – 2

Q (10) – 3

That was our topic for today.

Want more?

Check out the tag “English” on our website, where you will find lots of fun articles that teach you all aspects of the English language; writing, speaking, reading, phonics and much more.

And if you’re more into watching videos rather than reading, we also got a Youtube channel where you can learn new things with fun animation videos, so give it a shot.

Teaching kids how to read by Learning Mole

The main references used in this article:

  1. English Grammar in Use, Fifth Edition, Units: 69 – 80.
  2. Practical English Usage by Michael Swan, Section 12: Determiners.
  3. Advanced Grammar in Use, Third Edition, Units: 44, 45, 46, and 47.
  4. Practice Makes Perfect Advanced English Grammar for ESL Learners, Unit 3: Articles and quantifiers.

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