Articles (the, a, and an) help say what kind of noun you are talking about. To make it easier, there are a few rules for you to follow.

Basic Vocabulary

Before getting to the rules, you should know this vocabulary:

  • Vowels– letters A, E, I, O, U.
  • Consonants– any letter that isn’t a vowel. These are letters like B, C, D, F, etc.
  • Proper nouns- names of people, places or things such as David, Germany, or Samsung.
  • Singular count nouns– can be counted, but are only one unit, as in key, prison, and getaway.
  • Plural count nouns- countable nouns that have more than one unit (officers, dogs, and search parties).
  • Non-countable nouns- cannot be counted. This is true for things like cheese, milk, and patience.

 

Rules

Use a or an with singular count nouns. A comes before words that start with consonants; an comes before words the begin with vowels: A little dog can make an awful lot of noise.

Use the when the noun is:

1. unique (there’s only one)

  • The moon shone over the Pacific Ocean.

2. specific (the listener is familiar with it)

  • Go to the supermarket on your way home from the bank.

3. mentioned a second time

  • I bought some ice cream. The ice cream was good.
  • I bought a pen. The pen didn’t work.

4. superlative

  • The most ambitious student bothered the greatest number of teachers.

5. a river, desert, or forest

  • I’ve never paddled down the Mississippi, never felt the burning hot sand of the Sahara, and never ventured anywhere like the Amazon.

6. a region or country that is plural*, united, a kingdom, or a republic

  • The Balkans
  • The Netherlands
  • The Philippines
  • The United Arab Emirates
  • The United Kingdom
  • The United States of America
  • The Republic of Ireland

*When a country is officially divided, it is possible to refer to the parts together with the plus –s.

  • The Koreas, North and South Korea

Avoid using articles for:

1. general non-count nouns

  • Incorrect: The water is a precious natural resource in every country.
  • Correct: Water is a precious natural resource in every country.

2. a person’s name and other singular proper nouns

  • Incorrect: Fifi, the Sally’s favorite cat, was bought in a London.
  • Correct: Fifi, Sally’s favorite cat, was bought in London.

*If a person is famous, you may clarify this by stating the before the name.

A: Hello, I’d like to make a reservation for Michael Jordan.
B: Wow, is this the Michael Jordan?
A: No, I’m a plumber.