A non-boring guide to definite and indefinite articles in English

Author

Marco Monroy

Editor

Berlitz China

English articles are an essential part of learning English — and we don’t mean the ones you’d find in a magazine.

When you set out to study English grammar, you’ll find that many of the words that we take for granted actually serve incredibly important purposes. Though articles in English are only up to three letters in length, they help us navigate everyday conversations with both precision and efficiency.

If you’re not a native English speaker, then learning how to use English articles correctly will help you advance in your quest for proficiency. In this helpful guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the difference between definite and indefinite articles along with example sentences and pronunciation guides to help you start nailing this grammar point right away.

Let’s get right to the guide!


What are articles in English grammar?

Articles are the most common determiners of the English language, which means that they help us determine the identity of a noun. In other words, articles can help us tell whether we know the exact identity of a noun in question when we’re talking.

In linguistics, this is referred to as the referent of a noun. For example, when we say “I love candles” without an article, we’re stating that we don’t know the referent of the noun — we are talking about candles in general rather than about one specific candle. However, when we say “I love the candle,” then we are saying that we love a specific, individual candle — and that it’s abundantly clear what that candle is to the audience.

I love the candle.


What is a definite article?

A definite article is used to signal that you’re speaking about a specific thing or group of things. The audience must be fully aware of what specific item you’re talking about, as they wouldn’t be able to follow the conversation otherwise. The only definite article in English is “the.”

Some ways you can tell whether the audience knows about the identity of the noun are:

  • The item is obvious.
  • The item is common knowledge.
  • The noun was mentioned earlier in the sentence.

Keep reading to learn more about the situations where you’d use a definite article in a sentence.

When to use “the”

The English article “the” be used with all nouns, including singular, plural, countable, and non-countable nouns. The only precondition is that the reader or listener is already aware of the identity of said noun, such as in the following situations:

When the noun is obvious

If the item in question is abundantly obvious, then you don’t have to worry about the audience not knowing what you’re talking about. This generally happens when you’re talking about a noun that’s directly in your field of vision. For example, if you’re having dinner and there’s a jug full of water on the table, you can just ask, “Can you pass me the water?”

Here are some more examples:

English Pronunciation IPA
I will have the chocolate ice cream, please. eye weel hav thuh choh-cuh-lat eyes creem, plees aɪ ˈwɪl həv ðə ˈtʃɑklət ˈaɪs ˈkɹim | ˈpliz ‖
We can’t leave until the truck gets out of the way. we cahnt leev uhn-teel thuh truck gehts ah-oot off thuh way wi ˈkænt ˈliv ənˈtɪl ðə ˈtɹʌk ˈɡɛts ˈaʊt əv ðə ˈweɪ ‖
I bumped into the tree. eye bumpd een-too thuh tree aɪ ˈbʌmpt ˈɪntə ðə ˈtɹi ‖

When the noun is common knowledge

If it’s something that everybody knows about, then you don’t have to worry about the audience not knowing about it. Think of these as universally known objects, values, or feelings that you can expect anyone on Earth to know about. Here are some examples.

English Pronunciation IPA
The sky is so blue today. thuh skeye ees soh bloo ðə ˈskaɪ ˈɪz ˈsoʊ ˈblu təˈdeɪ ‖
I love the sound of the ocean. eye luv thuh sound off thuh oh-sheh-ahn aɪ ˈlʌv ðə ˈsaʊnd əv ði ˈoʊʃən ‖
There’s nothing like the love of a mother. there’s nuh-theeng laik thuh luv off ah muh-there ˈðɛrz ˈnʌθɪŋ ˈlaɪk ðə ˈlʌv əv ə ˈmʌðɚ ‖

When the noun was already mentioned

Definite pronouns help us avoid repetition. Use them to refer to nouns that you’ve already introduced the audience to certain nouns earlier in the sentence or in preceding sentences.

English Pronunciation IPA
Mary heard some birds singing outside her window. While she loved hearing the birds sing, she couldn’t focus on her English homework. mah-reeh hurd sum birds seen-geeng aut-said her ween-dou. wah-eel she luvd heh-ah-reeng thuh beerds seeng, she could-nt fou-coos ohn hur een-gleesh hum-werk ˈmɛri ˈhɝd ˈsʌm ˈbɝdz ˈsɪŋɪŋ ˌaʊtˈsaɪd ˈhɝ ˈwɪndoʊ ‖ ˈwaɪəl ʃi ˈlʌvd ˈhɪrɪŋ ðə ˈbɝdz ˈsɪŋ | ʃi ˈkʊdn̩t ˈfoʊkəs ˈɔn ˈhɝ ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ ˈhoʊmˌwɝk ‖
Excuse me, has anyone seen a few books around here? I think I left the books on the table about an hour ago. ex-coose-me, has ah-nee-uan seen ah fee-ooh books ah-raund heer? eye theek eye left thuh books ohn thuh tay-bleh ah-baut ahn ah-oohr ah-goh ɪkˈskjuz ˈmi | həz ˈɛniˌwʌn ˈsin ə ˈfju ˈbʊks ɚˈɹaʊnd ˈhɪr ‖ aɪ ˈθɪŋk aɪ ˈlɛft ðə ˈbʊks ˈɔn ðə ˈteɪbəl əˈbaʊt ən ˈaʊɚ əˈɡoʊ ‖
Look at those ducks in the lake! Oh, you missed it, the ducks were swimming in sync. look aht those duhcks een thuh layk! oh, yoo meesd eet, thuh duhcks wur swee-meeng een seenc. ˈlʊk ət ˈðoʊz ˈdʌks ˈɪn ðə ˈleɪk ‖ ˈoʊ | jə ˈmɪst ˈɪt | ðə ˈdʌks wɚ ˈswɪmɪŋ ˈɪn ˈsɪŋk ‖


What is an indefinite article?

Indefinite articles are used to signal that you’re talking about a general group of nouns. This is useful when you’re not talking about the specific referent of a noun (i.e., the exact version of said noun) and would instead like to refer to any version of the noun. Indefinite articles are used exclusively with singular, countable nouns.

Work friends on a break.

When to use “a”

The indefinite article “a” can only be used in front of singular, countable nouns. Wait, so indefinite articles are used with countable nouns? Doesn’t that sound counterintuitive?

Well, yes. It might sound like indefinite nouns are used when speaking about things that cannot be defined or counted, but that’s not actually the case. Indefinite actually means that you’re not speaking about a specific specimen of a noun — any individual item from that noun will do. For example, when you say you want “a glass of water,” you don’t really care which glass of water you get. That’s where the indefinite part comes from.

Here are a few cases of when to use the article “a” in English:

When the specific identity is unknown

You can use the indefinite article “a” in situations where you don’t know which specific specimen of a noun is involved in the situation you’re referring to.

English Pronunciation IPA
I think a raccoon went through my trash last night. eye theenk ah rah-coon went throo meye trash last nayt aɪ ˈθɪŋk ə ɹæˈkun ˈwɛnt ˈθɹu ˈmaɪ ˈtɹæʃ ˈlæst ˈnaɪt ‖
She went to the store to buy a carton of eggs. she went too thuh stor too by ah car-tuhn off eggs ʃi ˈwɛnt tə ðə ˈstɔr tə ˈbaɪ ə ˈkɑrtn̩ əv ˈɛɡz ‖
My mom wanted me to leave you a note. meye mom wahn-ted me too leev yoo ah nout ˈmaɪ ˈmɑm ˈwɔntəd ˈmi tə ˈliv ju ə ˈnoʊt ‖

When mentioning something for the first time

As you now know, the definite article “the” helps us avoid repetition when talking about nouns that we’ve already mentioned. However, when mentioning articles for the first time, we have to make sure to use the indefinite article “a.” Here are some examples:

English Pronunciation IPA
I left a cake in the oven. Please turn the oven off and take the cake out in thirty minutes. eye lehft ah cay-k een thee uh-venn. puh-lees toorn thee uh-venn off and tay-k thuh cay-k aut een theer-tee mee-nuhts aɪ ˈlɛft ə ˈkeɪk ˈɪn ði ˈʌvən ‖ ˈpliz ˈtɝn ði ˈʌvən ˈɔf ənd ˈteɪk ðə ˈkeɪk ˈaʊt ˈɪn ˈθɝti ˈmɪnəts ‖
I want to get a cat when I’m older. I will play with the cat all day long. eye wahnt too get uh cat wen eye’m oll-der. eye weel play weeth thuh cat all day long aɪ ˈwɔnt tə ˈɡɛt ə ˈkæt ˈwɛn ˈaɪm ˈoʊldɚ ‖ aɪ ˈwɪl ˈpleɪ ˈwɪθ ðə ˈkæt ˈɔl ˈdeɪ ˈlɔŋ ‖
I think a student might have taken your backpack by accident. Let’s look for the student. eye theenk ah stoo-dent mait hav tay-kuhn yoor back-pack bay acc-see-duhnt. lets look for thuh stoo-dent aɪ ˈθɪŋk ə ˈstudn̩t ˈmaɪt həf ˈteɪkən jɚ ˈbækˌpæk ˈbaɪ ˈæksədənt ‖ ˈlɛts ˈlʊk fɚ ðə ˈstudn̩t ‖

When referring to someone’s profession

You’ll want to use the indefinite article “a” when speaking about professions. Whether it’s your own profession or someone else’s, make sure to always include “a” right before the noun. Here are some examples:

English Pronunciation IPA
When I grow up, I want to be a teacher. wen eye grow up, eye want to be ah tee-cher ˈwɛn aɪ ˈɡɹoʊ ˈʌp | aɪ ˈwɔnt tə ˈbi ə ˈtitʃɚ ‖
My mom’s a lawyer. my moms ah law-yur ˈmaɪ ˈmɑmz ə ˈlɑjɚ ‖
I heard his brother is a comedian. eye hurd hees bruh-ther ees ah cuh-me-dee-ahn aɪ ˈhɝd ˈhɪz ˈbɹʌðɚ ˈɪz ə kəˈmidiən ‖

When to use “an”

The other indefinite article in English is “an.” This article works exactly the same as “a,” except that it’s used when the article is followed by a noun that starts with a vowel sound. Here are some examples:

English Pronunciation IPA
He wants an apple. he wants an ah-pl hi ˈwɔnts ən ˈæpəl ‖
I wish we had an outdoor patio. eye weesh we had ahn aut-door pah-tee-oh aɪ ˈwɪʃ wi həd ən ˈaʊtˌdɔr ˈpætiˌoʊ ‖
I once knew an Estonian teacher. eye once new an ess-toh-nee-an tee-cher aɪ ˈwʌns ˈnu ən ɛˈstoʊniən ˈtitʃɚ ‖


When not to use an article in English

Although using English articles can be very helpful, there are certain times when using them would be a grave mistake. Here are a few scenarios where you’ll want to avoid using articles altogether:

Learn when not to use an article in English.

Pronouns

Many languages allow for the use of both articles and pronouns — but English isn’t one of them. Any time you have a pronoun, you’ll want to avoid using an article before the noun. Here are some examples:

English Pronunciation IPA
Has anyone seen my book? has ah-nee-one seen my book həz ˈɛniˌwʌn ˈsin ˈmaɪ ˈbʊk ‖
I loved their concert! eye love-d their con-sert aɪ ˈlʌvd ðɚ ˈkɑnsɚt ‖
We followed their car to the venue. we followed their car to thuh veh-new wi ˈfɑlod ðɚ ˈkɑr tə ðə ˈvɛnˌju ‖

Languages

Languages in English never require an article. Although other languages will sometimes allow for an article to be used right before a language, you’ll want to avoid saying things like “he speaks the French” in English!

English Pronunciation IPA
My parents speak Dutch, but I don’t. my pah-rents speek dutch, but eye dont ˈmaɪ ˈpɛrənts ˈspik ˈdʌtʃ | ˈbʌt aɪ ˈdoʊnt ‖
Where did you learn to speak Spanish? where deed yoo lern too speek spah-neesh ˈwɛr ˈdɪd jə ˈlɝn tə ˈspik ˈspænɪʃ ‖
The couple next to us is speaking German, I think. the cop-puhl next too us ees spee-king ger-man, eye theenk ðə ˈkʌpəl ˈnɛkst tu əs ˈɪz ˈspikɪŋ ˈdʒɝmən | aɪ ˈθɪŋk ‖

Academic subjects

If you’re studying English, then chances are that you’re studying other academic subjects as well. If you’re wondering how to refer to these subjects, the answer is simple: always avoid articles! Here are a few examples:

English Pronunciation IPA
Pepe isn’t very good at math. peh-peh eesnt veh-ree good at math ˈpeɪ(ˌ)peɪ ˈɪzn̩t ˈvɛri ˈɡʊd ət ˈmæθ ‖
I majored in Economics. eye may-yuhrd een eh-cuh-nuh-meecs aɪ ˈmeɪdʒɚd ˈɪn ˌɛkəˈnɑmɪks ‖
My mom studied business in college. my mom stuh-deed bis-nees een coh-lej ˈmaɪ ˈmɑm ˈstʌdid ˈbɪznəs ˈɪn ˈkɑlɪdʒ ‖

Sports

Finally, sports never go with an article in English. Whether you’re talking about your hobbies or want to talk about the sports you watch for entertainment, remember to avoid articles altogether. Keep in mind, though, that you should use an article if you’re talking about a sports match or competition — just not when you’re talking about the sport in general.

English Pronunciation IPA
My favorite sport is fencing. my fay-vuh-reet sport ees fen-seeng ˈmaɪ ˈfeɪvɹət ˈspɔrt ˈɪz ˈfɛnsɪŋ ‖
I’ve never enjoyed playing soccer, but I do love watching a good soccer game! I’ve neh-vuhr ehn-joyd play-eeng suh-ker, but eye do love wa-ching a good suh-ker gayme ˈaɪv ˈnɛvɚ ɪnˈdʒɔɪd ˈpleɪɪŋ ˈsɑkɚ | ˈbʌt aɪ ˈdu ˈlʌv ˈwɑtʃɪŋ ə ˈɡʊd ˈsɑkɚ ˈɡeɪm ‖
My mom played badminton as a child. my mom playd bad-meen-ton as a child ˈmaɪ ˈmɑm ˈpleɪd ˈbædˌmɪtn̩ əz ə ˈtʃaɪəld ‖


How is the English definite article “the” pronounced?

There are very few words in English that change pronunciation, depending on the surrounding words, and “the” is one of them. If you’re a native English speaker, then you know that “the” is pronounced differently in the following example: “The dog took the apple.” But do you know why?

When the word immediately following “the” starts with a vowel sound, it is pronounced “thee.” Otherwise, it is pronounced “thuh.” Check out the video below for a demonstration of the two ways to pronounce this article.

How to pronounce the article THE - 3 rules| Accurate English


English articles FAQs

Do mass nouns go with articles?

Mass nouns don’t go with indefinite articles. However, they can go with definite articles. Also known as “uncountable nouns,” these nouns cannot be separated into individual units. Therefore, you cannot use indefinite articles right before them.

Do acronyms need articles?

It depends. Acronyms that are read out as individual letters (which you know are called “initialisms, if you read our guide to English abbreviations) do require an article, whereas acronyms that are read as a whole word don’t. Here are some examples:

Initialisms that do require an article:

  • She works at the UN.
  • He’s getting an MBA.
  • The CEO of the company is incredibly accomplished.

Acronyms that are read as a single word do not require an article:

  • He wants to work at NASA.
  • I bank at BOFA.
  • These shirts are BOGO today only.

Do country names need articles?

In general, country names don’t need an article. However, there are a few countries that do require an article since they include common nouns like Republic, Kingdom, Island, etc, or because they include a plural name. Here are some countries that do require an article:

  • the Czech Republic
  • the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
  • the Russian Federation
  • the United Kingdom
  • the Maldives
  • the Netherlands
  • the Philippines
  • the United Arab Emirates
  • the United States


Hope you enjoyed the ultimate guide to English pronouns

That’s the spirit! You’ve now learned everything you need to know to master the articles in English. In this handy guide, we covered the difference between definite and indefinite articles, the difference between countable and uncountable nouns, and plenty of examples!

If you enjoyed this article, make sure to check out our English blog where we regularly publish content about this fascinating language. Some of our recent posts include a guide to the hardest English words (do you know them all!?) and hundreds of ridiculously cute nicknames.

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