by Craig Shrives

What Are Articles? (with Examples)

The articles are the words "a," "an," and "the." They define whether something is specific or unspecific. There are two types of article:

(1) The Definite Article (The). "The" is called the definite article. It defines its noun as something specific (e.g., something previously mentioned or known, something unique, something being identified by the speaker).
  • This is the lake.
  • (This is a previously specified lake, i.e., one already known to the readers.)
(2) The Indefinite Article (A, An). "A" and "an" are called the indefinite articles. They define their noun as something unspecific (e.g., something generic, something mentioned for the first time).
  • This is a lake.
  • (This is a previously unspecified lake.)

Infographic Explaining the Two Types of Article

articles English grammar

The Two Types of Article

Key Takeaway

"The" is called the definite article because it is used to indicate something specific.

"A" and "an" are called the indefinite articles because they are used to indicate something unspecific.

Articles Are Determiners

The articles are classified as determiners. A determiner sits before a noun to indicate quantity, possession, specificity, or definiteness. Read more about determiners.

Examples of the Definite and Indefinite Articles

Here are some more examples of the articles in use:
  • I fell over the chair again.
  • (The chair is specific. It is known to the audience.)
  • Can you pass me a chair?
  • (This means an unspecific chair, i.e., any chair.)
  • I loved the apple pie after the meal.
  • (In this example, the audience knows which apple pie is being praised, e.g., the one at last night's dinner.)
  • I love an apple pie after dinner.
  • (The audience understands that the speaker likes to eat an apple pie after dinner (any apple pie will do).)

Articles Go before Adjectives

An article often modifies a noun that is already being modified by an adjective. When this happens, the article goes before the adjective (or adjectives). For example:
  • Please open the small box first.
  • (Here, the noun "box" is being modified by the adjective "small." The definite article "the" sits before the adjective. Remember that the use of "the" tells us that we are talking about a box already known to the audience.)
  • You will get an excellent pizza at Papa Antonio's.
  • (Here, the indefinite article "an" sits before the adjective "excellent.")

Indefinite Articles Are Used with Singular Nouns

The indefinite article ("a," "an") is only for singular nouns. It is not used for plural nouns.

As the indefinite article specifies one thing (e.g., "a cup" means "one cup"), it is not used with non-countable nouns (e.g., "water," "air," "integrity"). For example:
  • I need an air. wrong cross
  • Play me a music. wrong cross
  • Give me a heat. wrong cross
Most commonly, the indefinite determiner "some" is used instead.

Articles Are Not Used with Possessive Determiners or Possessive Pronouns

Articles are not used with possessive determiners ("my," "your," "his," "her," "its," "our," "their") or possessive pronouns ("mine," "yours," "his," "hers," "ours," "theirs") as these already show that something is specific. For example:
  • Take me to the your leader. wrong cross
  • Take me to your leader. correct tick
  • Can I borrow a yours? wrong cross
  • Can I borrow yours? correct tick
Here are two common questions related to articles.

(Question 1) When Do You Use "An" and "A"?

The most common mistake involving articles is using "an" instead of "a" (or vice versa). This mistake occurs because writers believe "an" is used before a vowel and "a" before a consonant. That is not entirely accurate.

"An" is used before a vowel sound, and "a" is used before a consonant sound. The word sound is important because consonants can create vowel sounds, and vowels can create consonant sounds. Therefore, the use of "an" or "a" is determined by the sound not the letter. Look at these examples:
  • A house correct tick
  • An hour correct tick
  • ("House" and "hour" start with the same three letters; however, "house" attracts "a," and "hour" attracts "an." This is because "house" starts with a consonant sound, but "hour" starts with a vowel sound.)
  • A uniform row correct tick
  • An unidentified man correct tick
  • ("Uniform" and "unidentified" start with the same three letters; however, "uniform " attracts "a," and "unidentified" attracts "an." This is because "uniform" starts with a consonant sound ("yoo"), but "unidentified" starts with a vowel sound.)
Be especially careful with abbreviations:
  • An MOT correct tick
  • (The letter "em" starts with a vowel sound.)
  • An LRS correct tick
  • (The letter "el" starts with a vowel sound.)
  • A US diplomat correct tick
  • (The letter "yoo" starts with a consonant sound.)

(Question 2) Do you say "an historic moment" or "a historic moment"?

The words "historic," "historical," "historian," "horrific," and even "hotel" are worthy of special mention because they are often spoken and written with the wrong version of the indefinite article. All of these words start with a consonant sound, as soft as it might be. Therefore, their article is "a" not "an."
  • The attraction of power can be a disease, a horrific disease. correct tick (Irish actor Liam Cunningham)
  • We owe an historic debt to American Indians. They have a unique set of concerns that haven't been addressed. wrong cross (American politician Alan Franken)
  • ("An historic" is wrong, but "a unique" is correct.)
Here are two other issues related to the articles.

(Issue 1) Writing a job title or an office name with a capital letter.

A job title (e.g., "president," "judge," "director") or the name of an office ("parliament," "court," "accounts section") is given a capital letter when it refers to a specific person or office, i.e., when it's a proper noun. So, when the definite article (i.e., "the") appears before such a title or name, there's a pretty good chance you'll need a capital letter.

Here's the guidance: If the job title or office name is being used for its dictionary definition, i.e., as a common noun, then don't use a capital letter. However, if the job title or office name nails it down to one specific person or office, then use a capital letter. Look at these examples:
  • The King was a king among kings. correct tick
  • ("The King" specifies an individual, but "a king" and "kings" do not. The first one is a proper noun. The other two are common nouns.)
  • The Prime Minister said: "Being a prime minister is a lonely cannot lead from the crowd." correct tick (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher).
  • ("The Prime Minister" specifies an individual, but "a prime minister" does not.)

(Issue 2) Capitalizing "The" when it starts a name (e.g., "The Beatles").

Some names (particularly band names) start with "The" (e.g., "The Beatles," "The Rolling Stones," "The Sex Pistols"). When such names appear in running text, you have a choice whether to write "The" (with a capital letter) or "the." There's no consensus among the leading style guides on this point, so go with your preference.
  • Did you download the The Clash album?
  • (Logically, this is correct, but it's far too unwieldy. No one would write it. Most people would write "Did you download the Clash album?".)
Bear in mind that you might stumble across this issue with foreign names.
  • Gina Vitale: The restaurant is called "The La Trattoria."
  • Michael Felgate: "The La Trattoria" means "The The Trattoria."
  • Gina Vitale: I know.
  • (This is an extract from the 1999 Hugh Grant film "Mickey Blue Eyes." With more clarity of thought, the owner might have called the restaurant "La Trattoria.")
  • Does it disturb anyone else that "The Los Angeles Angels" baseball team translates directly as "The The Angels Angels"? (Anon)
  • (There's no fix for this one. Just go with it.)

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