Articles in English Grammar

Introduction

Articles are words that precede nouns. There are two kinds of articles in the English language. The indefinite articles a/an and the definite article the. We use the definite article with previously-mentioned nouns and the indefinite articles with nouns that are mentioned for the first time. There’s also a list of nouns that we typically use with no article.

Learn about the usage of definite and indefinite articles in English grammar. Then test your knowledge in the interactive exercises.

Example

Ms Smith is a businesswoman. She is in a hotel room. There is a bed, a carpet and a bedside table in the room. On the bedside table there is a bedside lamp.

Ms Smith has got two pieces of luggage: a suitcase and a handbag. The suitcase is very heavy.

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The Indefinite Article

The indefinite article in English is a/an. We use the indefinite article:

  • to talk about something unspecified
    Example:
    Ms Smith is in a hotel room.

    some hotel room
    It is not specified exactly which hotel room she is in.

  • to mention something in a text for the first time (introductory)
    Example:
    There is a bed, a carpet and a bedside table.
    Ms Smith has got two pieces of luggage: a suitcase and a handbag.
  • in job titles
    Example:
    Ms Smith is a businesswoman.

To Note

If the following word begins with a vowel or silent h, we use an instead of a to make it sound better:

Example:
an apple (not: a apple)
an hour (not: a hour)

The vowel u at the beginning of a word is sometimes pronounced [ʌ] and sometimes [ju]. When pronounced [ʌ], we use an. When pronounced [ju], we use a:

Example:
an umbrella (but: a university)

The Definite Article

The definite article in English is the. We use the definite article:

  • to talk about something specific
    Example:
    There is a bed, a carpet and a bedside table in the room.

    a certain room, i.e. the one she is in

  • when we have already mentioned something or assume it to be already known
    Example:
    Ms Smith has got two pieces of luggage: a suitcase and a handbag. The suitcase is very heavy.

To Note

Usually we pronounce the definite article [ðə]. If the following word begins with a vowel sound, however, we pronounce the definite article [ðı].

No Article

We generally don’t use any article for:

  • plural nouns that refer to general people/things (but: for specific people/things we use an article)
    Example:
    Businesswomen travel a lot.
    (but: The businesswomen that I know travel a lot.)
    Hotels are very expensive.
    (but: The hotels in this area are affordable.)
  • the names of towns, streets, squares, parks
    Example:
    Ms Smith is in Dublin. Her hotel is in Merrion Street between Fitzwilliam Square and Merrion Park.
  • the names of countries (except for the Netherlands those containing Kingdom, Republic, State, Union)
    Example:
    Dublin is in Ireland.
    (but: Miami is in the USA./We go to the Netherlands every summer.)
  • the names of continents and lakes
    Example:
    Ireland is a country in Europe.
    Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater lake in the world.
  • the names of days and months (except when specified)
    Example:
    She travelled to Ireland in May. She arrived on Monday.
    (but: She arrived on a rainy Monday.)
  • with adverbs of time such as next/last
    Example:
    She left last Monday and is coming back next Wednesday.
  • meals
    Example:
    The hotel serves breakfast between 8 and 10 o’clock.
  • languages that a person knows
    Example:
    Ms Smith speaks English.
  • institutions such as school, university, hospital, prison (but not when we are talking about one particular school, university etc.)
    Example:
    The children go to school.
    (but: Her son and my daughter go to the school at the end of the street.)
  • in certain expressions with bed, class, home, work
    Example:
    go to bed
    be in class
    after work
    come home
  • materials (e.g. paper, wood, water, milk, iron), but only when generalising (if we’re talking about one particular thing, we have to use an article.)
    Example:
    Paper is made of wood.
    We need to buy milk.
    (but: Where is the paper for the printer?)
  • abtract nouns i.e. things that you can’t touch, in a general context
    Example:
    Life is complicated.
    Hope dies last.
    What’s on TV today?
    (but: We never eat dinner in fron of the TV.)
  • expressions with go by + means of transport
    Example:
    Did she get to the hotel by bus or by taxi?
  • expressions with play + sport (but not: play + musical instrument)
    Example:
    He plays tennis.
    (but: She plays the piano.)
  • Titles and departments used with verbs like be, beome, elect, appoint
    Example:
    When was Barack Obama elected President?
    She was appointed Executive Director.
  • We don’t usually use articles with parts of the body of personal obejcts. Instead, we use possesive determiners (my, your, …).
    Example:
    I put my hand in my pocket.
    The children are brushing their teeth.