How to Use Articles in English Correctly (A, An, and The)

May 4, 2016 | 18 comments

Have you ever asked these questions?

  • Why does English have articles?
  • What do articles do?
  • Do you really need to use them?
  • Can native speakers understand you without them?

You’re not alone.

There is no doubt: articles are confusing! I agree with you on that. There are so many rules for how to use them. And then, of course, we break the rules too.

So, how can you learn to use articles correctly? It takes time and practice.
In today’s lesson, I want to answer your questions. And then I want to help you learn articles in a different way. This lesson has three parts:

  1. A quick overview of general rules for how to decide which article is correct.
  2. A reading with an explanation for each article in the text so you can see clearly the how and why we use articles.
  3. Two practice opportunities.

Finally, I know this lesson is heavy. It is a lot of information. So take your time. If you do a little bit today, a little bit tomorrow, and a little bit the next day, that is okay!

Introduction on How to Use Articles in English

You should already know that in English we have 4 articles a/an/the/ø.

The /ø/ is often called the Zero Article. And articles are used before nouns ( = people, places, or things/objects).
If you haven’t learned about the ø before, don’t worry! You’ll learn about it today.

Articles are used to help us separate (or understand) new vs. old information. They help us understand specific vs. general information. And they help us understand if you are talking about many vs. all vs. one. (You will learn more about this in the text you’ll read below.)

“Articles are used to help us separate (or understand) new vs. old information. They help us understand specific vs. general information. And they help us understand if you are talking about many vs. all vs. one.”

General Rules on How to Use Articles in English

Okay, so let’s do a review of the general rules of articles. I will not provide ALL the rules and exceptions of articles here. Many of those you will learn specifically in the text below.

A/An

We use a/an:

  • The first time you mention or refer to a noun
    • Example: I bought a new pair of shoes yesterday! (First mention). Can you believe the shoes were 50% off!! (Second mention – now it is clear which shoes: the shoes you bought yesterday.)
  • To name a member of a group
    • Jobs (I’m a teacher.)
    • Nationalities (He’s an American.)
    • Religions (She’s a Buddhist.)
  • When you also mean “one”
    • Example: I had an ( =one) apple at lunch.
  • Expressions that quantify
    • A little (bit) of
    • A lot of
    • A ton of

The

We use the:

  • With something already mentioned (see example for the first mention with a/an above)
  • When there is just one of something*
    • I took a walk in the forest. (There is only one forest where you live.)
  • When you define a specific person, object or place
    •  I loved the book my dad gave me for my birthday. (Not just any book, but specifically the books your dad gave you for your birthday.)
  • With things that are unique (there is only one)*
    • The sun
    • The President of the U.S.
    • The CEO of Apple
  • With ordinal numbers and superlatives
    • The first, the second, the third
    • The biggest, the best, the fastest, the ugliest
  • With some proper nouns:
    • Rivers (The Nile)
    • Mountains Ranges (The Rockies, The Alps)
    • Oceans (The Pacific Ocean)
    • Groups of Islands or Countries with Plural
      • The Hawaiian Islands
      • The Netherlands

*When there is just one of something or when something is unique, then the information is shared information. This means everyone already knows about the person/place/thing so we don’t have to explain it or define it. For example, everyone around the world knows about the sun. We don’t have to explain the sun, so we always use the sun (not a sun).

Ø (Zero Article)

We use ø:

  • Talk about things in general (all things everywhere)
    • I love watching whales! (All whales everywhere, not just one specific whale.)
    • I love Italy.
  • Countries
    • He’s from Germany.
    • Have you visited Algeria?
  • Languages
    • French
    • Japanese
  • Meals
    • Breakfast
  • People’s names and titles
  • With possessives
    • My coffee …
    • Her dog …
  • Uncountable nouns (unless referring to a specific example)
    • I love adding milk (uncountable) to my coffee (uncountable + possessive).
  • Specific mountains, lakes, and islands
    • Mt. Fuji
  • Most cities, towns, streets, and airports
    • Kiev
    • New York
    • Main Street

Now – let’s see these rules in real life.

For this activity, I am using a text from last week’s lesson on Travel Stories although I’ve made a few changes. It is important to use a text that is familiar to or easy for you because I want you to focus on the articles (how we use them and why), not on the meaning of the text.

Practice Activity with Articles in English

Here is a text from last week’s Travel Stories lesson. In the text, I have highlighted most uses of a/an/the/ø and, below the text, I explain WHY the article is used. Just click to open the number if you’re not sure why the article is used.

This activity will help you understand how articles help us understand new vs. old information and specific vs. general information. After you read, you’ll have an opportunity to practice.

When I was younger, I had (1) a real sense of adventure. I loved (2) the vacations my family took every summer. We would go backpacking, camp in the woods, sleep in tents and spend (3) the evening next to (4) the campfire. As (5) a child, I remember trying to build (6) a fire from scratch by rubbing two sticks together. I think (7) my entire family laughed while I worked at it for (8) an hour. Unfortunately, I never succeeded and my father had to start (9) the fire.

But I do have such good (10) memories of camping and hiking with my family. Every (11) summer my parents would pack up (12) the kids and (13) the dog into (14) the car. Then they would pack all (15) our outdoor gear on (16) the roof of (17) the car and fill (18) coolers full of (19) food. My mom would pack all (20) the usual stuff: trail mix, fruit, marshmallows to roast over (21) the fire, stuff to make (22) sandwiches, etc. We’d take (23) a road trip to (24) the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, find (25) our spot to set up camp, and pitch our tents near a river. I loved listening to (26) the sound of (27) the river at (28) night!

But I haven’t camped for years! Neither David nor I can take that much (29) time off of work. It makes me (30) a little sad that Sophie, our daughter, won’t have those same memories. But last (31) year we did do something a little fun, a little different: we had (32) a staycation. The two of us could only get 4 days off of work and we were on (33) a tight budget. We hadn’t enjoyed everything (34) the city has to offer for ages so we decided to have our vacation at (35) home. We visited (36) the museums and went to (37) the theater. We even took (38) a day trip to (39) the coast (40) a few hours away for (41) a day of sun, sand, and surf. We have some wonderful (42) photos of our picnic dinner watching (43) the sunset on (44) the beach.

1. Sense
Sense. Sense is one of a group of senses (a sense of adventure, a sense of place, a sense of purpose, a sense of smell, etc.). It is also new information to you.

5. Child

Child. Child shows membership to a group (similar to an adult, a teacher, a doctor, etc.)

9. Fire

Fire. This is the second mention of fire so now the listener or reader knows which fire – the fire I tried to build from scratch. It is now very specific.

13. Dog

Dog. It this sentence it is specific: my family’s dog (not just any dog).

17. Car

Car. Same as rule number 12. Also, this is the second time we refer to the car, so it is repeated and clear which car the speaker is referring to.

21. Fire

Fire. Again, we are referring to the specific fire at our campsite, not just any fire anywhere.

25. Spot
  1. Spot. Possessive used (our) so no article.

29. Time

Time. Time is referring to time in general, not a specific time of year or day.

33. Budget

Budget. This is the first mention of budget and it is not a specific or defined budget.

27. Theater

Theater. Same as #36.

41. A day of

A day of. See #30. This expression quantifies how much time.

2. Vacations

Vacations. The word is very specific and defined: the vacations my family took, not just any vacation.

6. Fire

Fire. It is the first time the word is mentioned. It is not clear or defined. We don’t know which fire or when. 

10. Memories

Memories. In this sentence the word is used to talk about memories in general. Not one, clear specific memory. 

14. Car

Car. Same as number 12.

18. Coolers

Coolers. It is in the same sentence with “our … gear” so with the sentence structure we can assume “our coolers” which means we don’t need an article.

22. Sandwiches

Sandwiches. Sandwiches are general, not one specific kind of sandwich. No article.

26. Sound

Sound. The sound is defined – it is the sound of the river, not just any possible sound.

30. A little sad

A little sad. Expressions that quantify something often use “a.” For example: a little of, a lot of, a bit of, a ton of, etc. Here “a little” means a small amount.

34. City

City. Because “staycation” means to stay home in your own city for a vacation, we assume the reader/listener knows which city. This is shared knowledge so we use “the.”

38. Day trip

Day trip. This is the first mention of a day trip.

42. Photos

Photos. Here the speaker is referring to all photos, not just one and not a specific photo from the day. No article.

3. Evening

Evening. The is used with expressions such as in the evening, in the morning, in the afternoon. Exception: at night.

7. Family

Family. Family has “my” in front of it. When a possessive pronoun (my, your, his/her/its, our, their) or demonstrative pronoun (this, that, these, those) is used before the noun, we do not use an article.

11. Summer

Summer. Generally no article is used with seasons, days of the week, months or holidays. Note: There are some exceptions to this rule.

15. Gear

Gear. The word “our” is before it so we do not need an article (see number 7).

19. Food

Food. Food is general. We don’t know how much or any specific kind of food. No article.

23. Road Trip

Road trip. This is the first time road trip is mentioned. It is new information. And we can assume it is one of many road trips (in this story, the person is talking about the memories of taking vacations as a child, not just one memory).

27. River

River. This is the second mention of “river” so we use “the.” (See the sentence before.)

31. Year

Year. Years, days and months don’t usually use an article.

35. Home

Home. Many “place” nouns do not use an article. For example: at home, at work, at church, to church, to jail, etc.

39. Coast

Coast. We can assume there is only one coast nearby. If there are many, then the speaker would need to define which coast.

43. Sunset

Sunset. Sunset is a unique noun. Like earth, president, sunrise, moon, there is only one possible meaning so we use “the.”

4. Campfire

Campfire. Campfire is specific. It is the campfire at our campsite (not just any campfire anywhere). This sentence assumes it is clear to the listener or reader where this campfire is.

8. Hour

Hour. We are referring to one single hour. 

12. Kids

Kids. In this sentence it is also specific: my parent’s kids (not just any kids from any family).

16. Roof

Roof. Same as rule number 12.

20. Stuff

Stuff. Like number 18, it is usually general but in this sentence it is “the usual stuff.” This tells us something more specific. Not just any stuff but the normal or usual stuff we take on vacation.

24. Rocky Mountains

Rocky Mountains. We use “the” for specific mountain rangers (groups of mountains) and groups of lakes. But we do not use an article (ø) for specific mountains: Mt. Everest.

28. Night

Night. See rule 3. 

32. Staycation

Staycation. This is the first mention.

36. Museums

Museums. The speakers is still talking about the staycation in his/her city, so the museums are the specific museums in that city (not just any museum anywhere).

40. A few hours

A few hours. See #30.

44. Beach

Beach. In the sentence before, the speaker says, “the coast.” Beach is a synonym so this is considered a second mention. We know it is the beach from the day trip.

Now it’s your turn!

Here is another travel story from last week but with some changes. Try to fill in the missing words with a/an/the/ø (to show no article). Can you identify WHY you should use the article you chose?

Ugh! I hate planning (1) ____ vacations. I mean, I do love traveling but I don’t want to think about it. All (2) ____ details and planning – I can’t be bothered!

I prefer (3) _____ all-inclusive vacations for (4) ____ little R&R. You know, those places where all you do is show up and that’s it. You have (5) _____ breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And there are  (6) ____ activities, (7) _____ beach, pools, and dancing. Sure, they usually cost (8) ____ little more but if I don’t have to plan everything then it’s worth it. (9) ____ only thing is you have to be careful of those hidden extras! I’ve definitely been surprised by (10) ____ final bill (11) _____ few times.

My fiancé and I are talking about (12) _____ all-inclusive cruise for our honeymoon. It sounds amazing but I’ve never been on (13) ____ ship for that long. I’m (14) ____ little nervous about seasickness I do love (15) ____ idea of island-hopping. Plus (16) _____ ship has (17) ____ ton of amenities with its many pools, fitness centers, and restaurants. What I need to figure out is what to pack for (18) ____ cruise. I’m actually terrible about over packing.

 

Let’s try one more practice.

This time I’d like you to write your own paragraph. You can choose to write another travel story or you can talk about your day. Use the rules and examples from this lesson to help you with the articles.

Write your paragraph in the comments section. I will be sure to read it and help you!

Have a great week and thanks for joining me,
~ Annemarie

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