English has two articles: the and a/an. The is used to refer to specific or particular nouns; a/an is used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. We call the the definite article and a/an the indefinite article.
For example, if I say, “Let’s read the book,” I mean a specific book. If I say, “Let’s read a book,” I mean any book rather than a specific book.
Let’s look at each kind of article a little more closely.
Indefinite Articles: a and an
“A” and “an” signal that the noun modified is indefinite, referring to any member of a group. For example:
- “My daughter really wants a dog for Christmas.” This refers to any dog. We don’t know which dog because we haven’t found the dog yet.
Remember, too, that in English, the indefinite articles are used to indicate membership in a group:
- I am a teacher. (I am a member of a large group known as teachers.)
- Brian is an Irishman. (Brian is a member of the people known as Irish.)
- Seiko is a practicing Buddhist. (Seiko is a member of the group of people known as Buddhists.)
Remember, using a or an depends on the sound that begins the next word. So…
- a + singular noun beginning with a consonant: a boy; a car; a bike; a zoo; a dog
- an + singular noun beginning with a vowel: an elephant; an egg; an apple; an idiot; an orphan
- a + singular noun beginning with a consonant sound: a user; a university
Count and Uncount Nouns
The can be used with uncount nouns, or the article can be omitted entirely.
- “I love to sail over the water” (some specific body of water) or “I love to sail over water” (any water).
A/an can be used only with count nouns.
- “I need a bottle of water.”
Definite Article: the
The definite article is used before singular and plural nouns when the noun is specific or particular. The signals that the noun is definite, that it refers to a particular member of a group. For example:
“The dog that bit me ran away.” Here, we’re talking about a specific dog, the dog that bit me.
It is also used before superlatives He is the fastest man ever, with national groups The English love tea, with inventions and species of animal, e.g. the computer, the polar bear, when there is only one of something, e.g. the Moon.
Geographical use of the
There are some specific rules for using the with geographical nouns.
Do not use the before:
- names of most countries/territories: Italy, Mexico, Bolivia; however, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the United States
- names of cities, towns, or states: Seoul, Manitoba, Miami
- names of streets: Washington Blvd., Main St.
- names of lakes and bays: Lake Titicaca, Lake Erie except with a group of lakes like the Great Lakes
- names of mountains: Mount Everest, Mount Fuji except with ranges of mountains like the Andes or the Rockies or unusual names like the Matterhorn
- names of continents (Asia, Europe)
- names of islands (Easter Island, Maui, Key West) except with island chains like the Aleutians, the Hebrides, or the Canary Islands
Do use the before:
- names of rivers, oceans and seas: the Nile, the Pacific
- points on the globe: the Equator, the North Pole
- geographical areas: the Middle East, the West
- deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas: the Sahara, the Persian Gulf, the Black Forest, the Iberian Peninsula
Omission of Articles
Some common types of nouns that don’t take an article are:
- Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian
- Names of sports: volleyball, hockey, baseball
- Names of academic subjects: mathematics, biology, history, computer science
A, an or the
Definite Article or Zero Article- Geography