How to Use Articles in English Correctly (A, An, and The)
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:
- A quick overview of general rules for how to decide which article is correct.
- A reading with an explanation for each article in the text so you can see clearly the how and why we use articles.
- 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.)
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.
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
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.
- He’s from Germany.
- Have you visited Algeria?
- 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
- 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.
Child. Child shows membership to a group (similar to an adult, a teacher, a doctor, etc.)
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.
Dog. It this sentence it is specific: my family’s dog (not just any dog).
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.
Fire. Again, we are referring to the specific fire at our campsite, not just any fire anywhere.
- Spot. Possessive used (our) so no article.
Time. Time is referring to time in general, not a specific time of year or day.
Budget. This is the first mention of budget and it is not a specific or defined budget.
Theater. Same as #36.
41. A day of
A day of. See #30. This expression quantifies how much time.
Vacations. The word is very specific and defined: the vacations my family took, not just any vacation.
Fire. It is the first time the word is mentioned. It is not clear or defined. We don’t know which fire or when.
Memories. In this sentence the word is used to talk about memories in general. Not one, clear specific memory.
Car. Same as number 12.
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.
Sandwiches. Sandwiches are general, not one specific kind of sandwich. No article.
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.
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.
Photos. Here the speaker is referring to all photos, not just one and not a specific photo from the day. No article.
Evening. The is used with expressions such as in the evening, in the morning, in the afternoon. Exception: at night.
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.
Summer. Generally no article is used with seasons, days of the week, months or holidays. Note: There are some exceptions to this rule.
Gear. The word “our” is before it so we do not need an article (see number 7).
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).
River. This is the second mention of “river” so we use “the.” (See the sentence before.)
Year. Years, days and months don’t usually use an article.
Home. Many “place” nouns do not use an article. For example: at home, at work, at church, to church, to jail, etc.
Coast. We can assume there is only one coast nearby. If there are many, then the speaker would need to define which coast.
Sunset. Sunset is a unique noun. Like earth, president, sunrise, moon, there is only one possible meaning so we use “the.”
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.
Hour. We are referring to one single hour.
Kids. In this sentence it is also specific: my parent’s kids (not just any kids from any family).
Roof. Same as rule number 12.
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.
Night. See rule 3.
Staycation. This is the first mention.
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.
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,
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Very helpful. I never thought about articles being an adjective, but what do you know!
Hello Annemarie, I’ve tried solving the exercise posted in your article. Please help me figure out if I’ve made any mistakes. Ugh! I hate planning (1) _ø _ vacations. I mean, I do love travelling but I don’t want to think about it. All (2) _the_ details and planning – I can’t be bothered! I prefer (3) __an___ all-inclusive vacations for (4) _a_ little R&R. You know, those places where all you do is show up and that’s it. You have (5) ___ø _ breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And there are (6) _ø _ activities, (7) _ø __ beach, pools, and dancing. Sure, they usually… Read more »
I didnt understand why when you say The Nile you used the article. You bring up for specific geographic places(like Fuji) that should use zero article. Isn’t Nile specific? Why we cannot use zero article.I think that there is discrepancy here.
Please Could you get through to me?
I don’t know where or how to answer these questions
isn’t fire an uncountable noun ?why have we used a before it?6 number
HELLO. I notice a mistake in the name of Ukrainian city – correct is “Kyiv“, NOT “
Thank you. I will be sure to update it.
A great lesson! a great way of explaining. Thank you so much!
I have such an amazing memory of the vacation I took last summer! I went with my family in Florida for a whole week. We took two different flights and meet up at the Miami international airport. My brother rented a car so it would have been much easier to go around the state. For the first three days we planned to visit Florida Keys so as soon as we got the car we hit the road to Summerland Key, our first stop. There we had lunch in a cool place near by the beach. After that we stopped at… Read more »
Father took us to the beach or a beach?
Please help with the answer.
Thank you so much, I had enjoyed ❤️
I have a question about using an article in front of a country name. As you mentioned in the lesson, usually there’s none. But I’m originally from Ukraine, and I often hear people using “the” with it… is it correct? Is this an exception?
Mam, below is the description (the description or a description? :() of my last week trip. I have numbered the areas that I am doubtful about. Hope it’s not too much. Thank you, mam. really appreciate your help. We moved about a few kilometres through the branch road and stopped again on the roadside where our hero Sheikh, the mastermind and chief coordinator of the whole program came to lead us to the camp in the middle of a desert, five kilometres away from (1) the normal life. We were a team of twenty enthusiastic young chaps, ready to shrug-off… Read more »
Wow, Salahudheen, you sure have put in some effort here. I have pasted your text below with some corrections for articles: Mam, below is the description of my last week trip. I have numbered the areas that I am doubtful about. Hope it’s not too much. Thank you, mam. really appreciate your help. We moved about a few kilometres through the branch road and stopped again on the roadside where our hero Sheikh, the mastermind and chief coordinator of the whole program came to lead us to the camp in the middle of a desert, five kilometres away from (1)… Read more »
It’s the best lesson about articles I have ever seen
Thank you so much. I really appreciate your comment and I’m glad it was helpful.
Hi Anne, I have enjoyed this post and it’s changed my view about articles. Keep up your good work and congrauts 🙂
Thank you so much for your comment and I’m very glad to hear that this post was useful to you.
Certainly, using articles in English is challenging so it’s always good to find a new way to understand them.
Thank you for your lessons.
It is my pleasure! I’m so glad they are useful to you!
Best wishes, Annemarie
Hello Annemarie, Here is my second task – a story! Last three days I spent in a very beautiful and ancient town – Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky. It is more than 700 years old and just 100 km from Kiev. The town is old and, perhaps, this is the reason why it hasn’t got skyscrapers. The highest one is a five-storied building and, probably, it was built in the USSR. There are lots of churches and cathedrals and their domes are shining on the sun. Well, for us it is usual, I mean, here almost every city, town or even the smallest village… Read more »
Maria, I am so sorry I never replied to this! Forgive me. This was very well written! Especially with your use of a/an/the. I can see you thought carefully about each one. Just two small changes: – When we use “to spend” for time, we the time phrase after the verbs so in the first sentence we would say, “I spent the last three days in …” – A preposition change: ” … and their domes are shining [in] the sun.” I’m really impressed with this one Maria. I know articles can be very challenging but you’ve succeeded with them!… Read more »
Don’t be sorry! I know that you are a very busy person, and, still, you find time to help us. I am extremely grateful to you! Anyway, it is better late than never!:)
Thank you for these comments on my mistakes, now I see that I do have problems with another little words – prepositions!
Dear Annemarie! At first I want to thank you for this incredible lesson! It was very intresting and useful for me. What I liked the most was the ( I used “the” because I’m talking about a specific activity, am I right?) reading activity with articles! You didn’t give us only rules! You have shown a good example of using these rules with an explanation! I’ve also done the same practice task as Maria, but I didn’t share it because she had already done that))). What I want to mention is that my answers were correct with one exception! I’ve… Read more »
Hi Tatyana – I’m SO glad it was useful. Thank you for sharing that. And yes, you’re correct to use: What I like the most was the reading …” And congratulations on doing such a great job with the answers! It really isn’t easy. That sentence, “I prefer all-inclusive vacations …” is a tricky one. I can see why it seems like vacation is defined by “all-inclusive.” When we have a plural noun (vacations) and an adjective, it could mean all within that group and when it means all of them then we don’t use an article. So we can… Read more »
Very helpful indeed!
Hi Annemarie! This is my first task. 1. No article – plural, general 2. The details – some specific details concerning vacations (it sounds better with “the” to me) 3. No article – plural, but I am not sure, coz there is also a specific kind of vacations -all-inclusive….? 4. A little 5. No article 6. No article – plural 7. A beach – new info 8. A little more 9. The only thing – specific thing 10. The final bill – defined bill, not any bill 11. A few times 12. An all-inclusive cruise – not mentioned before 13.… Read more »
Maria!!!!! Wow – perfect! Absolutely 100% correct. (Although now I just gave the answers away to everyone.) 🙂 For number 2, we could also use “those” if someone wanted to avoid using an article. For number 3, we can’t use “a/an” because it’s plural. And we can’t use the because it isn’t a specific all-inclusive vacation, so no article is the best solution. I’m impressed. This isn’t easy. You did a great job thinking about “why” for each example. I hope you’ll try writing your own short example. I look forward to reading it. And remember – the more you… Read more »
Thank you for such a great lesson! It helps when you know why! What you did here, I mean explaining every article is so useful and helpful and awesome!:) I have just tried to do the same!
P.S. I hope guys won’t read these comments first!
Thank you so much, Maria. I’m so glad to know it was useful!