Using the Articles a, an, and the

English has two kinds of articles: definite (the), and indefinite (a/an). Articles modify nouns, indicating whether a noun refers to all instances everywhere, one of many instances, or one exact instance.

Here are basic rules for using the articles a, an, and the.

Use a or an when introducing a singular, countable noun.

EXAMPLE: Jana is a student in my class. She wrote an interesting paper about ghosts.

  • Use a before a consonant sound: a dog, a university, a European, a happy ending.
  • Use an before a vowel sound: an ugly dog, an ending, an hour.

Do not use a or an with non-count nouns.

EXAMPLE: He asked his friend for an advice.

But you may use a or an with…

  • a quantifier before a non-count noun: a little advice, a lot of advice, a piece of advice…
  • a unit of measure before a non-count noun: a bottle of water, a cup of water, a gram of water…

Here are some common non-count nouns:

  • Food: bread, butter, cheese, fruit, milk, rice, sugar
  • Gases: air, nitrogen, oxygen, pollution, steam
  • Liquids: blood, coffee, gasoline, oil, tea, water
  • Materials: glass, iron, paper, silver, wood, wool
  • General: equipment, furniture, mail, money, traffic, cash, clothing, jewelry, luggage
  • Abstract nouns: education, health, hope, intelligence, knowledge, music, time

Use the for most nouns whose specific identity is known to the reader because…

  • The noun was mentioned before: I have a cat; the cat is black.
  • A phrase or clause following the noun restricts its identity: She has the information that we requested.
  • A superlative specifies the noun’s identity: The most expensive computer is not the best computer.
  • Context makes the noun’s identity clear: Did you open the window?
  • The noun describes a specific person, place, or thing: The president of Mexico visited the White House.

Do not use the with most singular proper nouns.

  • The William Shakespeare was born in the Stratford-upon-Avon.

Omit the before the names of streets, cities, states, counties, most countries, continents, single lakes or bays, and single mountains.

  • David saw the West Lake when he visited the Hangzhou in the China.

But use the for united countries, large regions, deserts, peninsulas, oceans, seas, gulf, canals, rivers, mountain ranges, and groups of islands.

  • The Atlantic Ocean borders the East Coast of the United States.
  • They sailed from the Philippines to the Hawaiian Islands.
  • The Mississippi River flows to the Gulf of Mexico.

Omit articles before the names of languages, sports, and academic subjects.

  • Do you speak the Italian, the Portuguese, or the Spanish?
  • I play the volleyball, the tennis, and the soccer.
  • They publish books on the biology, the psychology, and the international studies.

Do not use the with plural or non-count nouns meaning “all” or “in general.”

  • Usually, he enjoys reading the novels…but he dislikes reading the novels of Kafka.
  • We expand the knowledge of the reality through the research.


Exercise: Articles have been omitted from the following story. Insert a, an, and the where required. Try to explain the reasons for your choices.

Bear and Travelers

Two travelers were walking along road when bear suddenly appeared. Before he saw them, one ran to tree at side of road, climbed up into branches and hid there. Other was not as fast as his companion. As he could not escape, he threw himself on ground and pretended to be dead. Bear came up and sniffed all around him, but man kept perfectly still and held his breath, for he knew that bear will not touch dead body. Bear thought he was corpse, and went away. When it was safe, traveler in tree came down, and asked other man what bear had whispered to him when he put his mouth near man’s ear. Other replied, “Never travel with friend who deserts you at first sign of danger.”