'A' vs 'The': Articles

'A' and 'The' are two of the most common words in English. They are articles - used to identify whether objects are known or unknown, general or specific.

And they can be very tricky to get right.

Here are some tips to help you out!

Articles in English

In English, there are two articles:  

The definite article: 'The'

The indefinite article: 'A'

('An' is exactly the same as 'A', used with words starting with a vowel sound.)

It can help to think of a third article: the 'zero' article, or 'null' article. This is where we don't use any article.

Articles are always used before a noun, and they give us information about the noun.

They tell us whether the noun is KNOWN or UNKNOWN, GENERAL or SPECIFIC, SINGULAR or PLURAL. They also change depending in whether the noun is COUNTABLE or UNCOUNTABLE.

Countable and Uncountable Nouns

Countable nouns are... well, things you can count!  Examples of countable nouns are:

books, cats, dogs, days, cups, pens, computers, televisions

Countable nouns can be singular or plural: a book, a cat, some dogs, sunny days

Uncountable nouns can't be counted, and only have one form:

milk, water, air, information, money, weather, news

We never use these in the plural: *milks, *informations, *weathers, *newses are all wrong!

(There are, of course, exceptions - but this is a good general rule)

Which Article Do We Use When?

Look at the table. It's divided into countable things and uncountable things. 

Let's deal with the countable things first.
 

 ARTICLES WITH COUNTABLE NOUNS

If the thing we're talking about is specific and unknown, or we're talking about a noun in general, we use 'A':

  • There is a man at the door (A specific man, but unknown to the speaker and listener)

  • I've just seen a car accident outside! (One particular accident, but unknown to the listener)

  • I'd love to have a dog, but I don't have time (A specific dog but we don't know/care which one)

If the thing is specific and known to the reader/listener we use 'The':

  • I think the President is crazy (Speaker and listener know the specific president of their country)

  • The doctor told me I need to stop smoking (The specific doctor of the speaker)

  • Thanks for the advice you gave me about work (The specific advice you gave me)

If we're talking about non-specific, abstract or general things, we don't use an article - or we use the 'zero' or 'null' article:

  • I'm a big fan of cats (Cats as an abstract concept)

  • I hate science-fiction movies! (That kind of movie in general)

  • Walking through trees always makes me happy (Trees in general)

 ARTICLES WITH UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS

Look at the last column in the table.

 

The only time we use an article with uncountable nouns is when they are specific and known - and we always use 'The':

  • I've put the kettle on to make tea (Specifically my kettle in the kitchen)

  • Global warming is causing changes to the weather (Everyone knows the weather)

  • I need a new car, but I don't have the money to buy one (The specific money needed to buy the car)

  • I can't tell you which computer to buy - I don't have the information I need (Specific information about what you want to use the computer for, how much you have to spend, etc)

  • I've been reading the news about Russia (The specific news stories)

We never use 'A' with uncountable nouns:

*a news, *a weather, *an information, *a data: all wrong!

Finally, when we're talking about abstract concepts, or things in general, we use the zero/null article - or no article at all, if you prefer:

  • Science has improved our lives greatly (Science in general)

  • I wish I had time to learn more languages (Time in general)

  • Time is a great healer (Time in the abstract)

  • Coffee makes life worth living! (Coffee in general)

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