How to use the articles correctly in English

Is the noun in its context countable or uncountable?
  • countable
  • uncountable
  • I don't know
  • I don't understand
Is the noun singular or plural?
  • singular
  • plural
  • I don't know
  • I don't understand
Which of the following applies?
  • This is the first mention of the noun
    - and -
    The noun is a general, not a specific, example of that thing
  • The noun has already been mentioned
    - or -
    The noun is a specific example of that thing
  • I don't know
  • I don't understand

If you don't know if the noun in question is countable or uncountable, you should look it up in a dictionary which identifies nouns in this way. One very good online dictionary is the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.

Alternatively, you can click here to open a text box. Type in your word (in the sentence), then follow the instructions you will see.

Note:In some dictionaries and grammar books countable and uncountable nouns are called count and uncount or non-count nouns.

An uncountable noun is a noun that we cannot put a number in front of, even the mumber 1. So, for example, milk is an uncountable noun because we cannot say 1 milk or 2 milks or 30 milks. (Saying that we cannot put a number in front of a noun is the same as saying that the noun cannot be made plural.)

Abstract nouns such as happiness or luck are a good example of uncountable nouns. We cannot say 1 happiness or 3 lucks.

Some nouns can be countable in one context (or with one meaning) and uncountable in another. For example, when hair means all the hair on one's head, it is uncountable and cannot be made plural. We don't say, for example, She has long hairs. When, however, hair refers to the individual hairs that have fallen out of a person's head, then hair becomes countable. For example, it is correct to say: She found three hairs on her pillow.

Which of the following applies?
  • This is the first mention of the noun
    - and -
    The noun is not obvious, not unique, not specific
  • The noun has already been mentioned
    - or -
    The noun is obvious or unique or specific
  • I don't know
  • I don't understand
Which of the following applies?
  • This is the first mention of the noun
    - and -
    The noun is a general, not a specific, example of that thing
  • The noun has already been mentioned
    - or -
    The noun is a specific example of that thing
  • I don't know
  • I don't understand

If a noun ends with an -s it is most likely a plural noun. If it doesn't end with an -s then it is most likely a singular noun.

There are some exceptions, however, so you might want to check in a dictionary. Another way to check is to look at the verb that agrees with (goes with) the noun and see whether it is in the singular (e.g. is, was, has, does, ...) or plural (e.g. are, were, have, do, ...).

Singular is the grammar term for one of an object. So, book and tree are singular nouns. Plural is the grammar term for more than one of an object. So, books and trees are plural nouns.

Most plural nouns in English end with an -s: boys, cars, computers, buildings, etc.

Use the indefinite article: a or an

  • I need a pencil.
  • Do you have a dog?
  • I hope you have a good vacation.
  • She has an orange for breakfast every day.

Use the definite article: the

  • The cat has gone. (You had already mentioned earlier that you saw a cat in the tree.)
  • I went to the dentist yesterday. (It is obvious to the listener which dentist you mean. )
  • Please switch off the light. (There is only one light in the room.)
  • Where's the pencil I gave you yesterday. (You are referring to a specific pencil.)

If you are the person speaking or writing, then you should know if you are mentioning the noun for the first time.

As to whether the noun you are referring to is obvious, unique or specific, you just have to ask yourself those very questions. For example: Is it obvious which cat you are referring to when you tell your partner: We need to feed the cat. Is there only one library in the school (so is library unique in the context in which you say Shall we go to the library?) Do you specify the noun that you are mentioning, for example: The film I saw on TV last night was very good?

A. First mention: The first mention of a noun is the first time we use the noun in what we say or write. For example, if I want to suggest that you look up an unknown word, then I will need to introduce the word dictionary and mention or use the word for the first time.

B. Obvious or unique or specific: Sometimes your listener or reader will know immediately which instance of the noun you are referring to, even when you mention it for the first time. For example; if you tell your wife that the garden needs watering, it is obvious that you are referring to your own garden, not to one of your neighbours' gardens.

A noun is unique if there is only one example of it (in the context in which you find yourself). For example: there is usually only one door in a room; there may be only one teapot on the table; there is only one tree in the garden. In these contexts, the nouns door, teapot and tree are unique.

A noun is specific if it specifies exactly which instance of the noun we mean. For example; if I ask you: "Where's the pencil I lent you yesterday?" I am specifying exactly which pencil I mean.

Do not use an article

  • Butterflies are beautiful insects. (You are talking about butterflies in general; about all or any example of them.)
  • Some people don't want children. (Maybe they don't like children in general. )
  • Trucks are not allowed on German highways on Sundays. (This rule applies to all trucks, in other words to trucks in general.)
  • Most people in the western world lives in towns or cities. (The statement refers to towns and cities in general.)

Use the definite article: the

  • I saw flowers on the road while walking the dog this morning. The flowers were gone when I went back in the afternoon. (Use the for the second mention of flowers.)
  • My cat tried to catch the butterflies in our garden. (You are talking about specific butterflies - those in your garden.)
  • The children got wet when it started to rain. (The specific children who were playing outside got wet. )
  • The police stopped the trucks that were driving too fast. (Only the specific trucks that drove too fast were stopped.)
  • Please put the books on the table. (The specific books you are carrying.)

If you are not sure if the plural noun refers to the thing in general or a specific examples of it, just ask yourself that very question. For example: Am I talking about all or any dogs or children (dogs or children in general). Or am I talking about specific instances of dogs and children?

A. First mention: The first mention of a noun is the first time we use the noun in what we say or write. For example, if I want to start talking about my love for dogs then I mention or use the word dogs for the first time in the conversation or piece of writing.

B: The other consideration is if the noun refers to the thing in general or a specific example of it. Sometimes you want to make a general comment about the plural noun: Dogs make very good pets or Do you have children? At other times zou want to refer to a specific example of the plural noun: The dogs that live next door bark day and night. The children got off the bus before the adults.

Do not use an article

  • Do you drink wine? (This is the first mention; and you are talking about wine in general.)
  • Money is not the only thing in life. (Money in general; the general fact of having money. Note: Money is an uncountable noun, because we cannot say 1 money, 2 moneys, etc.)
  • Everything living thing needs water. (Water in general.)
  • We looked out of the window and all we could see was snow. (The white stuff in general.)

Use the definite article: the

  • The wine I drank last night made me sleepy. (The specific example of wine.)
  • Can you return the money you borrowed last week? (The specific money that was borrowed.)
  • Don't drink the water in that bottle. (a specific example of water.)
  • The snow that fell yesterday was no good for making snowballs. (The specific snow that fell yesterday.)

If you are the person speaking or writing, then you should know if you are mentioning the noun for the first time.

The other consideration is if the noun refers to the thing in general or a specific example of it. So ask yourself that very question: Is the noun referring to the thing in general, to all or any examples of it? or Is the noun referring to a specific example of it?. Are you talking about wine or music or luck in general (e.g. I love music), or about a specific example of it (e.g. I didn't like the music playing in the film I watched last night)?

A. First mention: The first mention of a noun is the first time we use the noun in what we say or write. For example, if I want to say what drinks I like, then I will need to introduce words such as milk or wine and mention or use the word for the first time.

B: The other consideration is if the noun refers to the thing in general or a specific example of it. Sometimes you want to make a general comment about the uncountable noun: Milk comes from cows or Money doesn't grow on trees. At other times zou want to refer to a specific example of the uncountable noun: The milk I bought yesterday has gone bad already. Can I have the money I gave you last week?