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.
Before getting to the usage, it’s helpful to know the vocabulary below.
- 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.
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.
- 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.