The 3 articles in English are a, an and the. The learner has to decide noun-by-noun which one of the articles to use*. In fact, there are 4 choices to make, because sometimes no article is necessary. Native-speakers, of course, use the articles correctly without thinking in everyday spoken langauge. English learners, on the other hand, need to have some guidelines for making the right choice - particularly those learners whose own language does not have articles, such as Japanese or Korean. The guidelines that follow here should help ESL students to a basic understanding of English article use.
The most important first step in choosing the correct article is to categorize the noun as count or uncount in its context**:
- A count noun is a noun that can have a number in front of it: 1 teacher, 3 books, 76 trombones, 1,000,000 people.
- An uncount noun is a noun that cannot have a number put in front of it: 1 water, 2 lucks, 10 airs, 21 oils, 39 informations. Once you have correctly categorized the noun (using your dictionary if necessary), the following "rules" apply:
Following are some of the most important guidelines listed above, with example sentences:
|1. You use an uncount noun with no article if you mean all or any of that thing.||
|2. You use the with an uncount noun when you are talking about a particular example of that thing.||
|3. You usually use a/an with a count noun the first time you say or write that noun.||
|4. You use the with count nouns the second and subsequent times you use the noun, or when the listener already knows what you are referring to (maybe because there is only one of that thing).||
|5. You use a plural count noun with no article if you mean all or any of that thing.||
|6. The above rules apply whether there is or there is not an adjective in front of the noun.||
Note: This page contains short, generalized information about this enormously complex aspect of English grammar. For more detailed information, consult a good reference work such as Swan's Practical English Usage. And do not worry too much about article mistakes - only very rarely will they cause your listener or reader to misunderstand you!
** To repeat: It is very important to know that many nouns can be count in one context and uncount in another. A common example is hair: She has red hair (uncount) - There are two hairs in my soup! (count). So before deciding which article, if any, to use in front of any given noun, you need to know if the noun is countable or not in that context.
A good dictionary that tells you whether a noun is count or uncount in its context is the Cambridge English Online Dictionary.