Articles

Since many languages don’t use them, articles are one of the toughest concepts for ESL students to grasp. The problem is however, they are important. Not only is it fundamental that your students understand them then, but it's also important we, as teachers, get our heads around these tricky grammar points.

How many articles are there then?

In English, there are two types, an indefinite article, and an article.

Whereas a definite article ("the") can be used with any noun, indefinite articles ("a/an") can only be used with countable nouns. Take the following passage and see the highlighted words:

Henry VII was a part of the Lancashire family, whereas Richard III was a part of the Yorkshire family. Both believed they were the legitimate heirs to the throne after Edward IV's death, and so an incredibly long and brutal war took place over a 30 year period

Definite article

1). The most apparent reason for using the is when it’s obvious between a speaker/writer and listener/reader which noun we’re talking about:

  • Repetition: when something was discussed previously, and now it's obvious what thing we’re talking about, we use the instead of a/an. For instance, the speaker could suggest going to bar to drink beer. After deciding which bar, the listener and speaker could then refer to it as the bar, as now they know which one they’re going to:

Friend 1: "Want to go to a bar?"

Friend 2: "Ok, let's go to xxxx"

Friend 1 or 2 could now say: "ok see you at the bar".

Repetition can also apply to things the speaker and listener are both very familiar with in their local area, for example:

I’m going to the butchers = the butchers they both know about

Let’s go to the pub = the pub they usually go to

  • Another time we use the is when there is only one: the PresidentThe Second World War
  • And finally, another time we use the is to make it clear which noun we are describing:

The men over there look very aggressive

There could be many men surrounding the person speaking, but the and over there helps explain which men the speaker thinks looks aggressive

Oher times we use the are as follows:

2). Superlatives:

  • He's the tallest man in the world 
  • Usain Bolt is the fastest person in the world
  • "The Iran deal is the worst deal ever" said Trump

3). When talking about something in a general sense within, for example, an entire institution, a group of people, a communications/transport industry, or some jobs. Some examples are:

  • The aeroplane is an amazing piece of engineering
  • The computer can now be used to create virtually anything
  • Mostthe elderly live in old people's homes
  • The piano sounds beautiful when played well

4). Often the is used when there's a phrase after 'of':

  • The inner workings of the computer is complicated
  • The house on the corner of the road is huge

5). And when countries are plural nouns:

  • the Maldives
  • the Solomon Islands

Or countries with words such as republic and Kingdom:

  • the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea
  • the United Kingdom
  • the United States

Which isn’t the same for countries with singular nouns:

  • Japan (not the Japan)
  • Bolivia (not the Bolivia)

Or a person’s name:

  • Tom (not the Tom)

6). Or some famous buildings, artefacts and pieces of art:

  • the Tower of London
  • the Great Sphinx of Giza
  • the Starry Night, the Shard

7). And some famous geographical areas or places:

  • The Atlantic
  • The Alps
  • The Himalayas
  • The Amazon
  • The Nile
  • The Thames

8). Famous families:

  • the Clinton’s
  • the Cameron’s

9).Organisations:

  • the United Nations
  • the IMF
  • the WWF
  • the FBI
  • the Metropolitan Police

10). And before a nationality:

  • the British
  • the Indians
  • the Chinese

Can you think of any more times? Send us an email us - we’ll take a look at your suggestion and attribute the contribution to you!

Indefinite articles

Whereas the is used when the speaker and listener know which specific noun the speaker is referring to, the indefinite articles, a or an, are used only when the listener or speaker don’t know which noun the speaker is referring to. Check the differences between these two sentences:

  • I'm going to the bank= the speaker is going to the bank they usually go to
  • Where is a bank? = the speaker doesn't know where a bank is, but the listener might

When can we use an indefinite article?

Only countable nouns (people, objects, items, ideas etc. we can count) can be given an indefinite article:

  • An apple (2 apples, 3 apples etc.)
  • An accident (2 accidents etc.)

Uncountable nouns, however, cannot:

  • Water (not a water, 10 waters. But the water )
  • Leather (not a leather, 20 leathers. But the leather)

Should I use a or an?

A common misconception is a/an is used when the first letter of the next word’s a vowel. The difference, however, isn't based on spelling, but pronunciation. Whereas an is used before a vowel sound, a is used before a consonant sound. See the following examples:

  • a bike /baɪk/
  • a shop /ʃɒp/
  • an alligator /'ælɪgeɪtə/
  • an elephant /'ɛlɪfənt/

Alligator produces a vowel sound (æ) in its first syllable, so an is appropriate. Bike, on the other hand, produces b its first syllable, so a is appropriate.

Therefore, If there is a silent letter to start the word and the second letter generates a vowel sound, like:

  • hour /aʊə/

Then an is used. So:

  • hour = an hour

Also, sometimes the first letter creates a vowel sound. So:

  • MI6 agent /ɛmaɪ sɪks …./ = an MI6 agent

Conversely, if the first syllable, even if its first letter is a vowel, creates a consonant sound, then a is used:

  • university /ˌjuːnɪˈvɜːsɪti/ = a university
  • ukulele /juːkəˈleɪliː/ = a ukulele

So if the first syllable makes a consonant sound (i.e /ju/), then we use a not an

If you're unsure with how a word sounds and want to know, check out this website

When do we use indefinite articles?

1). Firstly we use it when the listener/reader, and vice versa, isn't sure which one the speaker is referring to:

  • There's a car over there (= the listener/reader doesn't know there's a car)
  • Is the meeting on a Friday?( = the speaker doesn’t know what day)
  • This phone has a scratch on it (= the speaker assumes the listener/reader didn't know there was a scratch on the phone)

2). When someone is speaking about a group of something, an indefinite article can be used to say things about the individual things that collectively make up that group:

  • A policeman should enforce the law (= any policeman)
  • A comedian must be funny (= any comedian)
  • I can't wait till I'm living in a mansion(= any mansion)

3). Also, when talking about an individual or thing:

  • Jonny lives in an apartment (= one apartment)
  • Charlotte's getting married to an accountant (= one accountant (individual))

4). When we want to define something or classify it:

  • He's a broker
  • Most mobile phones are a phone with internet
  • That is a forbidden parking space

5). And also when we use descriptive words to describe something or someone:

  • What a wonderful sight
  • He's a charming man
  • Lewis has a fantastic attitude

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