It can be really difficult for students to know when to use indefinite (a/an) and the definite (the) articles, especially if your language uses them in a very different way.
To help you clarify when and when not to use them I’ve created a very comprehensive guide to those tricky (aka difficult) things known as English articles. Grab a cup of coffee and turn off Netflix ’cause you’re going to be here a while.
Important Uncountable Nouns in English
English has many uncountable nouns that are countable in other languages: this makes it confusing for students to know if they can make these nouns plural in English.
Here’s a list of nouns that are uncountable in English and can therefore:
- Not have a plural form
- Cannot be used with ‘a/an’ as this means ‘one’
Tea, Coffee and Work need a little extra explanation. Normally they are uncountable, however:
Work can be countable when it refers to construction on roads/streets then we use the plural form
- Sorry I’m late, the main road was closed because they’re doing works
Coffee and tea can be used like countable nouns when ordering in a café or offering someone a cup of tea/coffee, for example;
- Can I have a coffee please? as it is understood that you are asking for a cup of coffee
News is a singular noun that ends in -s you cannot say
“Did you hear the new?”
New is only an adjective in English: “I got a new car yesterday”
Some/any/a/an or no article
A and an are only used with countable nouns and they mean ‘one’
- There’s a girl in the park
Not: there’s one girl in the park
In constructions with ‘left’ we can say ‘one’ instead of a/an
- There’s only one egg left
Some is a determiner that suggests a part of something bigger. Look at the difference between
- Would you like a pizza?
- Would you like some pizza?
We prefer using some/any when we are speaking about a part of a bigger whole (like a slice of pizza) and we prefer to leave out the article if we are referring to an unlimited quantity and are speaking in a general way about a noun.
- We saw some foxes today in the forest (a certain number of foxes not every fox)
- I love foxes (here we are not referring to a specific number of foxes we are speaking in general)
Not: I love the foxes
We use any in negative constructions and questions with both countable and uncountable nouns but we can also choose not to say it.
- Do you have (any) cigarettes?
- We don’t have (any) milk
But we can also use ‘some’ with questions, especially if we are offering something to someone
- Do you want some tea?
If you use some with a countable noun in a question we understand more than one because the nouns that follows must be in plural
- Do you want some apples to take home with you?
Do you want some apple to take home with you?
If you are referring to one noun then we use a or an
- Do you want an apple to take home with you?
The with countable and uncountable nouns
We use the with either countable and uncountable nouns when the speaker and the person they are speaking to both know which they mean (we are referring to something specific)
- Hi Kevin, how are the dogs? (=Kevin’s dogs or dogs that both the speaker and Kevin know)
- Stars are very pretty (in general)
- The stars are so bright tonight (the specific stars over our heads right now)
- Dogs are more loyal than cats (speaking in general)
We also use the if the noun is followed by a relative clause because we are not speaking about the noun in a general way
- Did you listen to the CD that I gave you?
The: when to use it and when to leave it out
Groups of People
When we are referring to a group of people such as elderly people, or unemployed people it is possible to cut people and say the + adjective to refer to the group
- Elderly people sometimes have trouble doing household chores
- The elderly sometimes have trouble doing household chores
BUT: we don’t use, for example the elderly people if we are speaking in general.
- Elderly people OR The elderly have trouble getting around (general)
- The elderly people here have trouble getting around because the streets are so busy (specific elderly people)
We can use the with closed groups for example people who belong to certain artistic or literary movements
- British poets (large undefined group)
- The Romantic Poets (specific artistic school)
We use the with many words that express a generalized physical environment
- The Mountains
- The Beach
- The Sea
- The Ocean
- The Countryside
We often use the with rivers, mountain ranges, deserts, island groups, seas and oceans.
- The River Thames
- The Himalayas
- But with individual mountains we normally don’t add the: I’ve seen Mount Everest
- Not: the Mount Everest
- The Bahamas
- The Atlantic
- The Sahara
But we don’t add the for lakes
- Have you been to Lake Michigan?
Normally we don’t use the for countries except for countries whose name has a common noun or adjective
- The United States of America
- The People’s Republic of China
- The Dominican Republic
For important institutions we use the
- The European Union (The EU)
- The United Nations (The UN)
- The Red Cross
Entertainment & Culture
With words relating to entertainment and media we normally use the
- The cinema*
- Do you read The Guardian?
- No, I read The Telegraph
- We use the before an instrument
- I play the piano quite well and now I’m learning the guitar
- The opera
- The theatre
- The radio
BUT if we speak about the art form of filmmaking or we qualify cinema with an adjective we don’t use the
- I love cinema (I love the art form of filmmaking)
- I love the cinema (I love going to the cinema and watching movies)
- I love French cinema (I love French films)
- With TV we normally don’t use the
Things that are unique
If there is only one of something in existence then we use the to refer to it, for example
- The sun
- The internet
- The moon
- The world
- The bible
- The Koran
Stars for example can be used without the because there are many stars but there is only one moon, one sun and one internet.
When referring to nationalities we can either say nationality + people or the + nationality
- I love the Germans/ I love German people
Not: I love the German people
When we speak about decades or centuries we use the
- Disco was a popular musical genre in the 70s/1970s (note how the decade is plural we say The seventies/ The nineteen-seventies)
In the 1800s planes didn’t exist (again this is plural – the eighteen-hundreds)
Both & All
We usually leave out the after both and all + number
- Both (
the) parents work for the UN
- We know which parents but we don’t usually say the
- All (
the) ten students passed their exam
The is normally dropped in these sentences.
With some everyday concepts like school, university, bed, home etc we don’t use the
- I’m going to bed
- Here the speaker refers to their own bed but we don’t use the
- I started university in 1994
I started the university in 1994
- I’m going home
Not: I’m going to my/the home
- I go to school everyday
- I go to work during the week
- She goes to church every Sunday
Days & Months
With days and months we don’t add the
- On Mondays I go to Pilates
- I’m getting married in March
- I’m going to Paris next Tuesday and last week I went to Berlin.
I’m going to Paris the next Tuesday and the last week I went to Berlin
We also don’t use the after all + time period
- I’ve been reading all day
I’ve been reading all the day
With languages we normally don’t add the but in some English speaking places you can hear languages being used with the and it can be colloquial
- John’s really good at French
- Michael’s really good at the Spanish, isn’t he? (colloquial in some English speaking parts)
Exhausted yet? See, I told you that coffee was a good idea. This list is very extensive but if you put in the effort to study it I promise you will never make a mistake with articles again. Please leave a comment with any questions you might have and I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, happy studying!
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