Article (the & a or an)

There are two articles in the English language: ‘a/an’ and ‘the’.

An article is used before a noun in a sentence. It acts as an adjective and thus, modifies the noun which means that it adds a bit more information regarding the noun. For instance, it may specify or unspecify the noun such as the shirt or a shirt. If there is already an adjective used before a noun in sentence, an article is used before the adjective that modifies the noun such as, a beautiful shirt.

It is important to learn the correct usage of articles for good writing skills because they are used as per rules of the English grammar in most cases where its wrong usage would result in grammatical mistakes in the sentence.

Examples: a car, a book, an apple, an onion, the sun, the earth, the river Nile. 

We will first discuss its general use and then move on to its use for particular words and phrases where it should be used as per rules.

  Understanding the General Usage of Articles

Articles are divided into the following two types.

  Indefinite Articles:   'a/an'
  Definite Article:         'the'

The indefinite article “a / an” is used for common (non-specific) nouns.


 She bought a shirt.

In the above example, the ‘shirt’ is a common noun. It simply refers to a unit of a group of common things (shirt). It can be any shirt. The purpose of using article (a) is to mention a thing without any intention (or need) to specify the thing.

On the other hand, the article “the” is used for a specific or particular noun.

For example, the Bible, the sun, the moon, etc. These nouns are particular nouns. For instance, the Bible is not a common book but a specific book. We may say ‘a book’ but since the Bible is a specific book, we would use the article ‘the’ before it.

A noun may be a particular noun because it exists as one entity on its own and does not exist in many numbers. For instance, ‘the sun’ or ‘the moon’ represents a particular noun because it exists as a single entity in the universe.

However, the article ‘the’ may also be used before a common noun (existing in many numbers) if it becomes specific by being discussed before within a context where it is referred to. The following paragraph is an example.

A cat ran after a mouse. The mouse hid under a table. The cat sat near the table and waited for the mouse to come out. A dog came there and barked at the cat. The cat was frightened to see the dog and ran away.

In the above paragraph, the article ‘a’ is used before the nouns ‘cat’ and ‘mouse’ in the first sentence. However, in the next sentences of the paragraph, the article ‘the’ is used before the nouns ‘cat’ and ‘mouse’ because since they were discussed in the first sentence, they became specific cat and mouse (not any cat or any mouse). The same can be seen for the other nouns ‘table’ and ‘dog’ in the above paragraph.  

  Rules for the usage of Indefinite articles – “a  / an”

  1. The article ‘a’ is used before singular (countable) nouns starting with a consonant letter (alphabets other than 'a, e, i, o, u'). e.g., a car, a chair, a table. It is also used before a noun starting with a vowel if it sounds like a consonant. e.g., a university.
  2. The article ‘an’ is used before singular (countable) nouns starting with a vowel letter (a, e, i, o, u). e.g., an apple, an umbrella, an onion, etc. It is also used before nouns starting with a consonant if it sounds like a vowel (such as that in some cases the first letter is mute). e.g., an hour.
  3. Before a countable noun which refers to a common group of things.
    e.g., A potato is rich in carbohydrates.
  4. Before the name of a profession.
    e.g., 1) He wants to become an engineer. 2) He is a doctor
  5. For expression of quantities.
    e.g., a few, a lot, a dozen, a couple.
  6. For expression of numbers.
    e.g., a million, a thousand, a hundred
  7. Before a noun in exclamatory sentences.
    e.g., 1) What a beautiful home! 2) What a nice book!
  8. An article cannot be used before uncountable nouns. e.g., water, milk, etc.  

  Rules for the usage of Definite article – “The”

The definite article ‘the’ is used before singular as well as plural nouns according to the following rules.

  1. Before proper nouns which are particular. e.g. the moon, the sun, the earth
  2. Before a common noun, which becomes particular by being discussed earlier in same the context where it is referred to.
    e.g., David bought a book. The book helped him in preparation for his exam.
  3. Before a common noun if a phrase or clause within the sentence specifies it.
    I saw the boy who had helped us last year.
    I do not like the shirt which I bought yesterday.
  4. Before superlatives (or other adjectives) making the noun particular. e.g., the youngest boy, the best option, the most powerful, the only way, the first day, etc.
  5. Before a phrase that is a combination of a common and proper noun because in such case the proper noun specifies the common noun. e.g., The river Nile, the New York city, the Muslim League party.
  6. Before the names of the organizations. e.g., The Association of Chartered Accountants, the World Health Organization, the Society for the protection of Child’s Rights.
  7. Article ‘the’ is used before the name of ocean, sea, river, dessert or forest (except lakes and fall), e.g. the Pacific Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Sahara, the Black Forests.
  8. Article “the” is used before the name of a geographical region and points on the globe, e.g., the Middle East, the West, the Equator, the North Pole.
  9. Before the names of scientific terms, laws and theories. Note that ‘the’ is only used if these names are written as ‘The Laws of Newton’ but not if written as ‘Newton’s Laws’.
  10. For the names of universities if the name starts with the word “university” such as ‘The University of Oxford’ but not when written as ‘Oxford University’.
  11. The article ‘the’ is never used before the names of places, cities and countries e.g., Japan, America, London, etc. However, it must be used before names representing a group of places or states. e.g., The United States of America. Some such names may be expressed as a short form that ends in ‘s’ and reflects that the name refers to a group of places or states. e.g., the Netherlands, the Philippines