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In this webpage I want to concentrate on a very common difficulty facing the learner of English; namely, the correct use of the articles the and a. The extent of the problem can be understood when it is considered that the is the most common word and a is the sixth most common word in the English language. The speaker is confronted with a decision on their use in virtually every sentence he speaks or writes. Of course there are some useful, simplified rules that can be learned quickly, so that even native speakers of languages in which articles do not exist, like Japanese, Korean, or Russian, can begin to get things right. But there are numerous occasions where the simple, general rules do not apply and the learner must learn these case by case.

Consider these sentences:

  1. She goes to school every day.
  2. She goes to the school every day.
  3. She goes to a school every day.

All three sentences are grammatically correct, but each has a different meaning. In 1. she is a student who attends lessons; in 2. she is perhaps the mother of the student who collects her daughter at the end of the school day; and in 3. we could be talking of a school inspector whose job is to visit many different schools.

As a first quiz question, can you give a similar explanation of the difference in meaning of these 3 sentences?

  1. He went to bed ..
  2. He went to the bed ..
  3. He went to a bed ..

Go to answers

Now try to complete the following sentences with the correct article; in some cases you may decide that no article is necessary. In cases where there is more than one possible answer, choose the answer that seems more likely. For example, both Man is a rational animal and The man is a rational animal are grammatically correct, but the first sentence, meaning "man" as a species, is far more likely than the second, which means a particular man of whom you are thinking.

  1. My brother’s learning how to play (..) violin.
  2. My sister’s learning how to play (..) golf.
  3. I like to spend my holidays at (..) sea, lying on the beach.
  4. My brother’s a sailor. He’s been at (..) sea for three months now.
  5. All my family is sick. I’ve got (..) cold; my sister has (..) flu, and my brother has (..)bronchitis.
  6. What’s for (..) lunch today?
  7. I need to clean (..) carpet. It’s filthy!
  8. I need to buy (..) carpet. My feet always feel cold on this wooden floor.
  9. (..) boys will be (..) boys!
  10. My brother is (..) doctor.
  11. Can you call (..) doctor please. I don’t feel at all well.
  12. Sometimes (..) life is hard.
  13. (..) wine is very cheap in France. Even a good one costs less than €10 (..) bottle.
  14. (..) apples are usually sold by (..) kilo. These here are €0,40 (..) kilo.
  15. I like watching (..) TV better than listening to (..) radio.
  16. I always travel to England at (..) night.
  17. She fell ill in (..) night.
  18. There are billions of stars in (..) space.
  19. Can you please clear (..) space in that cupboard? I need to put my things in it.
  20. It’s a fact that (..) English people talk a lot about the weather.
  21. It’s a fact that (..) English talk a lot about the weather.
  22. (..) rose is my favourite flower.
  23. (..) computer has changed the workplace out of all recognition.
  24. (..) computer can only do what it is programmed to do.
  25. I don’t like using (..) phone. I prefer to talk to (..) people in (..) person.
  26. It’s (..) time to go home now.
  27. Do you have (..) time? Yes, it’s six thirty.
  28. I had (..) wonderful time in Paris last weekend.
  29. I cannot remember (..) time when houses were so expensive as they are now.
  30. (..) sky was getting dark as I arrived home.
  31. I travelled home under (..) dark sky.
  32. If you carry on like that, you’ll end up in (..) prison.
  33. (..) warden is a person who works in (..) prison.
  34. When you enter (..) prison, you will see a large white building on the right-hand side.

Answers

** Note that the is called the definite article and a is called the indefinite article.

1. My brother’s learning how to play the violin.

We use the definite article when talking about what kind of music we play. But when the focus on the instrument itself as an object we use a or the according to the circumstances.

2. My sister’s learning how to play golf.

For sports and games we do not use an article. If we are talking about the ball as an object we use a or the according to the circumstances.

3. I like to spend my holidays at the sea, lying on the beach.

We usually use the definite article with sea, although it is a count noun.

4. My brother’s a sailor. He’s been at sea for three months now.

In this case the meaning is that the brother has been sailing from port to port for some time. There is no reference to a particular body of water.

5. All my family is sick. I’ve got a cold; my sister has the flu, and my brother has bronchitis.

There is no explanation for why these different diseases have different uses of the articles. It is just the case!

6. What’s for lunch today?

It’s unusual to have an article in front of the words for meals, unless you are referring to a specific meal that you have had.

7. I need to clean the carpet. It’s filthy!

The definite article is used here because there is usually only one carpet in a room. (Smaller carpets are called rugs.)

8. I need to buy a carpet. My feet always feel cold on this wooden floor.

The indefinite article is correct here since the carpet is unknown to the listener (and speaker).

9. Boys will be boys!

When we are referring to all of a particular count noun, we do not use an article.

10. My brother is a doctor.

For statements of someone’s profession we always use the indefinite article.

11. Can you call a/the doctor please. I don’t feel at all well.

Both answers are correct. If you are at home and feel sick you would use the definite article if you are referring to your house doctor who is known to the person you are speaking to.

If on the other hand you are on holiday and you say the sentence to a stranger, you would probably use the indefinite article.

12. Sometimes life is hard.

In this context life is an uncount noun and therefore does not require an article. (Contrast this with German: Das Leben ist schwer.)

13. Wine is very cheap in France. Even a good one costs less than €10 a bottle.

When referring to measurements or containers in this way, we usually use the indefinite article.

14. Apples are usually sold by the kilo. These here are €0,40 a kilo.

In contrast to the explanation in number 13, things are sold by the kilo, by the ounce, by the meter etc.

15. I like watching TV better than listening to the radio.

It is also correct to use the definite article in front of TV, but with radio the definite article is required.

16. I always travel to England at night.

For some reason when we are referring to times of day, we say in the morning, in the afternoon etc., but at night.

17. She fell ill in the night.

However, when we are referring to a specific night, we use the definite article.

18. There are billions of stars in space.

Space, meaning the universe around us, is always used without an article.

19. Can you please clear a space in that cupboard? I need to put my things in it.

In this sentence space means an area not containing other objects. Such spaces can be counted, and as a count noun we use a or the according to the circumstances.

20. It’s a fact that English people talk a lot about the weather.

This is similar to number 9. When we are referring to all of a particular count noun, we do not use an article.

21. It’s a fact that the English talk a lot about the weather.

However, when we refer to a nationality without using the word people, we sometimes do and sometimes don’t use an article. (It seems to depend on whether we can change the noun into a plural form.)

22. The rose is my favourite flower.

We use the definite article when the focus is on something as a representative of its class; when we are not referring to a particular example of it.

In such examples it is also possible to use the plural form without an article.

23. The computer has changed the workplace out of all recognition.

The definite article is used here for the same reasons as in number 22.

24. A computer can only do what it is programmed to do.

25. I don’t like using the phone. I prefer to talk to people in person.

The focus in this sentence is on the phone as a means of communication not as a particular object in the room. For this reason the definite article is used.

If the focus were on the object itself we would use a or the according to the circumstances.

In person is an idiom and so there is no further explanation for why we don’t use an article.

26. It’s time to go home now.

When we use the word time to mean clock time, it is usually countable, but in this particular expression no article is used.

Compare:

27. Do you have the time? Yes, it’s six thirty.

This is another reference to clock time, in this case a particular time, and so the definite article is used.

28. I had a wonderful time in Paris last weekend.

Time here is broadly synonymous with "occasion" which is a count noun and so the definite or indefinite article is used according to the situation.

29. I cannot remember a time when houses were so expensive as they are now.

30. The sky was getting dark as I arrived home.

The definite article is used for objects of which there is only one, the sky, the sun, the moon etc.

31. I travelled home under a dark sky.

But in this case the indefinite article is used because the focus is on a particular sky, i.e.. tonight’s sky as opposed to other the skies of other days this week and in the past. In this way the word sky has been made countable and can therefore be used with the indefinite article.

32. If you carry on like that, you’ll end up in prison.

No article is used when the focus is on the punishment for a crime rather than on the building itself.

33. A warden is a person who works in a prison.

Again the meaning of the word prison is as a place but as no particular prison is in the mind of the speaker, the indefinite article is used.

34. When you enter the prison you will see a large white building on the right-hand side.

Here the meaning of the word prison is as a particular place, known to the listener, and so the definite article is used.


Simplified rules on how to use the articles

To understand the rules, first it's important to know the difference between count and uncount nouns:

Nouns that we can put a number in front of are called count nouns. For example, we can say: 1 book, 2 trees, 10 students, 1 million butterflies. So book, tree, student and butterfly are all count nouns. Nouns that we cannot put a number in front of are called uncount nouns. For example, we cannot say: 1 music, 2 waters or 25 airs, so music, water and air are all examples of uncount nouns.

Here are some more examples:

  • Count nouns: river, chair, cat, teacher, tree, pencil, car, computer, house
  • Uncount nouns: gold, sugar, money, wood, hair (on the head), luck, beauty, health

Some nouns can be both count and uncount, depending on the situation in which they are used.

For example:

  • She has beautiful hair. (uncount) = all the hair on the head
  • There’s a hair in my soup. (count) = a strand of hair
  • Do we have paper? I want to draw a picture. = a sheet of paper
  • Can we get me a paper when we’re at the shop. = a newspaper
  • I like coffee. (uncount)
  • I’d like a coffee, please. (count) = I’d like a cup of coffee.

Rules on uncount nouns

a. We cannot say a with an uncount noun!

    I want to drink a water.

b. We cannot put a number in front of an uncount noun! (We cannot make an uncount noun plural.)

  • I need 3 sugars, please!
  • I like 2 musics.

c. We can use an uncount noun on its own.

  • I don't like to see blood.
  • Do you like music?

d. We use the with an uncount noun when we are talking about a particular example of that thing.

  • I don’t like the music they play at our dances.
  • Please pass the salt.

Rules on count nouns

a. We can put a number in front of a count noun.

  • 1 dog, 3 books, 100 pianos

b. We can put a and the in front of a count noun.

  • a man, the teacher, an apple

c. We MUST put a word in front of a singular count noun.            

  • I have sister.
  • I need blue pen.
  • Teacher always gives a lot of homework.

d. We can use a plural count noun on its own.

  • I don't like dogs.
  • Potatoes are vegetables.

e. We usually use a with a count noun the first time we say a word.

  • Can you lend me a pen?
  • There’s a man in the garden

f. We use the with count nouns:

        i. the second time we use a word

  • The pen you gave me doesn't write!
  • The man in the garden is wearing a black hat.

        ii. when the listener knows what we are referring to (maybe because there is only one of that thing).

  •     Please shut the door!
  •     Do not sit on the table!
  •     There's a man in the garden.

More details about the rules

1. The same rules apply if there is an adjective in front of the nouns.

  • I don’t like loud music.
  • There’s a strange man in the garden.
  • I need blue pen.

2. We often use an "of" expression in front of an uncount noun.

  • a piece of cake, a slice of bread, a drop of water, a lot of luck

3. We often use "some/any" in front of an uncount noun.

  • Would you like some cake?
  • I didn’t drink any alcohol last night.

Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)