How to Use Articles in English: A Guide

Learn about articles in English, including when and how to use them.

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Articles refer to things, people, animals, places, or concepts. They either pick out a particular thing, for instance “an apple”, but they can also pick out categories of things, like “apples.” By learning how to use articles effectively in your speaking and writing, you can make your English much clearer and more precise.

What are the articles in English?

In this next section, we’ll break down the differences between a definite article and an indefinite article. Let’s start with definite articles first.

Using definite articles in a sentence

Definite articles help you to discuss something specific. They’re used to talking about something you know the identity of.

For example:

  • “I looked after the dog today.”

The clue is in the name: definite articles help you to talk about particular (or definite) things.

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Using indefinite articles in a sentence

On the other hand, indefinite articles talk about a category of things that is not specific. You can also use indefinite articles if the identity of the thing you’re talking about is unknown. So, how does an indefinite article work in a sentence?

Let’s have a look at one with the example below:

  • “She bought a dog.”

“A” here tells us that the noun “dog” is indefinite – it’s not referring to a specific dog. Here, the most important consideration to make is that the person in the sentence bought a dog. We don’t know if she was looking for any particular dog.

Now let’s contrast this with the definite article, or “the”:

  • “She bought the dog.”

Here, the sentence has a slightly different meaning thanks to the definite article “the”. Perhaps the person in this sentence has finally bought the dog that they wanted. What matters is that the article “the” picks out one particular dog, rather than just any dog. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using a definite article with a singular or plural noun – it works just fine with both.

Quick tip for using “a” vs “an”:

Indefinite articles in English grammar are either “a” or “an”. If a word begins with a vowel rather than a consonant, you use “an” instead of “a”. You’d say “I have an apple”, as “apple” begins with the vowel – “a”.

However, there are a few exceptions to that rule. Some words in English begin with the consonant “h”, but sound as if they start with a vowel. _“Honest”__ starts with “h”, but you only pronounce the “o” sound. In this case, you’ll say that someone is “an honest person” rather than “a honest person”. You’ll also say “an hour” instead of “a hour”, or “an honor” rather than “a honor”._

These articles are also modified based on the adjectives they come before. If the adjective that comes after the article starts with a vowel, then the indefinite article becomes “an” even if the noun itself begins with a consonant.

Before we move on to the next section, let’s see an example:

  • “It was an unusual sweater.”

“Unusual” here modifies the indefinite article, so it becomes “an” even though the noun “sweater” begins with a consonant. Let’s look at how to use indefinite articles with uncountable nouns (and how to not use them).

Tip: Stuck when it comes to pronouncing English vowels and consonants? Our English alphabet guide helps you master all the different sounds.

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Countable vs uncountable nouns in a sentence

Now that you have a basic understanding of the differences between indefinite and definite articles, let’s look at how they’re used with countable vs uncountable nouns.

You’ll have to learn two types of nouns in English: countable and uncountable. As the names suggest, countable nouns are things that we can count and uncountable nouns are things we can’t. Firstly, we’ll look at what makes a noun countable, as well as how to use them in their plural form. Then, we’ll look at how to identify and use uncountable nouns.

What are countable nouns?

Countable nouns work in the way that we originally described, by using “a” or “an”. This is usually the case if you’re talking about a singular quantity of a noun.

Below are a few examples of countable nouns in a sentence:

  • “He gave me an apple.”
  • “I bought an umbrella because it was raining.”
  • “I need a ticket please.”
  • “She bought a gift.”

However, if you’re talking about plural countable nouns, you’ll need to use “some”.

Below are a few examples of countable nouns in plural form:

  • “He gave me some apples.”
  • “I bought some umbrellas for us because it was raining.”
  • “I need some tickets please.”
  • “She bought some gifts.”

In the above first example, “apples” is the plural of the noun “apple”. If there was just one apple, you’d say “He gave me an apple.” (and the indefinite article “an” returns).

What are uncountable nouns?

When you can’t state how much of something there is, then you’ll use an uncountable noun.

Some examples of uncountable nouns include:

  • Abstract concepts like “money”, or “time”, or “space”
  • Groups of physical objects which are considered homogenous like _“rice”, “water”, or “air”_

Uncountable nouns don’t have clear boundaries. They include materials, liquids, or any other things that are masses of objects. When you find yourself dealing with an uncountable noun, you can’t use an indefinite article like “a” or “an”. That’s because you can’t isolate the noun. Therefore, you need a different indefinite article, which is “some”. Or, you can just remove the indefinite article completely.

Familiarize yourself with a few example sentences containing uncountable nouns:

  • “Who wants tea?”
  • “He needs some air.”
  • “We’re having pasta for dinner.”
  • “Remember to buy some coffee from the shop.”

Uncountable nouns don’t usually have a plural form. Their quantity is usually unknown. We can use “there is” or “there are” to talk about the existence of something. You can use “there is” with uncountable nouns of any quantity and singular countable nouns.

Here are a few examples of where “there is” can be used in a sentence with uncountable nouns:

  • “There is coffee in the pot.”
  • “There is some milk in the fridge.”
  • “There is ice in the lemonade.”

So, to wrap up the above point: “is” is used when describing singular countable nouns and plurals of uncountable nouns.

While the difference between definite and indefinite articles is fairly straightforward, it’s important to not be caught out by subtle rules. This is especially the case when it comes down to using them with countable and uncountable nouns. It’s also worth knowing the difference between “a” and “an”, and when to use them. You’ll use “a” before most nouns starting with a consonant, and “an” for nouns starting with a vowel.

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