Whether you take note of them or not, you make use of various parts of speech ever day â€“ it's not as if you consciously think about the grammar that you are using, but it is there. But what happens if you would like to know more about grammar â€“ or perhaps you are planning to teach English to foreigners and have to know. Suddenly you may not feel so at home with your home language as what you thought â€“ but no need to worry, there is no need to be a walking textbook. This simple guide will give you a reminder of the deeper workings of the language that you use every day. Whether you need to know yourself or need to explain it to someone else, the simple guide to articles is all you need.
What is an article?
Articles are words that show us whether we are referring to a general group (of people, places, things, animals and more) or a specific member of a group (of people, places, things, animals and more).
There are three articles: a, an and the.
These articles are broken up into two groups:
Those referring to specific subjects and objects are called definite articles. The is a definite article.
Those referring to general subjects and objects are called indefinite articles. A and an are indefinite articles.
The definite article "the"
"The" is used before nouns that are specific or have been mentioned earlier â€“ we know exactly what or who the noun is referring to e.g.
The boy is doing it again. (It can only be one specific boy being referred to)
Please fetch my jacket from the car. (The speaker must be referring to a specific car)
I had a look at the decorations, the balloons are blue. (The specific balloons that form part of the decorations that were looked at are being referred to)
The rye bread here is great. (The specific rye bread sold at that particular location is being referred to.
Rules for using "the" when referring to locations
In terms of places, articles are often not used, but "the" is used in the following cases:
Before republic, state(s), kingdom and places using plural name forms (The Netherlands, the Republic of South Africa, the United States)
Before rivers, oceans, seas, mountain ranges and geographic areas (The Andies, The Nile, The Atlantic ocean, the South Coast)
Before deserts, gulfs, forests and peninsulas (The Sahara, the Knysna forest, the Cape peninsula)
Most names of specific states, countries, cities, towns, streets, lakes, bays, continents and islands do not make use of articles â€“ and it may require some experience to get used to this. There is an easy way to remember which names require a definite article:
The names of places that do need articles actually function as adjectives e.g. The United States ("States" is being described), the Nile river (river is being described), the Cape peninsula (peninsula is being described). If the name of a place seems to be describing a general term (or is in plural form), then the definite article "the" is used.
The indefinite articles "a" and "an"
These articles are used before nouns that introduce something that isn't specific or hasn't been mentioned earlier â€“ we do not know exactly which member of a group the subject or object is referring to. They are only used before singular general nouns (e.g. a chair) and never before pluralistic nouns (e.g. you can't say "a chairs").
I hired a rental car (we do not know which company was used or exactly which or what type of car is being referred to)
An honest days work (The noun here is "days", and we do not know exactly which day is being referred to)
Rules for using "a" and "an"
Knowing whether to use "a" or "an" in front of a noun depends on whether the noun starts with a vowel (a,e,I,o,u) or a consonant (those letters that are not vowels) sound. It is important to listen to how the word sounds, not how it is spelled e.g.
"A" is used before nouns that begin with consonants (a house, a tiger, a ball, a car)
"An" is used before nouns that begin with vowels (an opening, an atrium, an elephant, an ice pick)
BUT, listen to these:
A university ("u" is a vowel, but university sounds like "yooniversity" when spoken out loud. It therefore starts with a consonant sound and the article "a" is used)
An hour ("h" is a consonant, but hour sounds like "our" when spoken out loud. It therefore starts with a vowel sound and the article "an" is used)
Note: When adjectives are used before a noun, the use of "a" or "an" will depend on the consonant or vowel sound of the adjective and not of the noun e.g.
A wasted hour
An amazing lesson
When no articles are needed
When plural nouns or uncountable nouns are used in a general sense, no articles are used e.g.
Music is the heart of the soul. (Music is an uncountable noun and being talked about generally)
Lamas like to spit at people. (The plural form of "lama" is being used, and they are being spoken about generally, so no article is needed)
As is common with English, there are exceptions, and some countable nouns can also be used without making use of articles e.g.
I just came from town.
I attend university.
Lets travel by night.
Note that all of the above examples make use of prepositions rather than articles â€“ these are just some of the exceptions and practice and experience is required to completely understand when not to use an article.
Keep it simple
Overall, knowing when to use a definite article and when to use an indefinite article will serve you well is most cases, without having to worry about exceptions. These are the most important aspects to remember:
When we are talking about something specific, "the" is used. Names don't require "the" (unless they act as adjectives, see above). When we are talking about something that isn't specific, "a" or "an" is used (with the vowel sound of the word after them determining which one to use). When plural nouns or uncountable nouns are used in a general sense, no articles are used.