In today’s blog post, we’ll take a look at when to use articles ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’. Don’t forget to download your free articles cheat sheet at the bottom of the blog!
Let’s start with a general rule about when to use the articles ‘a’ and ‘an’. It’s important to know that ‘a’ and ‘an’ respond to the word that comes after it. What this means is:
If the first letter of the word proceeding it makes a vowel-sound – a, e, i, o, u – then you use the article ‘an’.
I saw an elephant.
Can I have an ice cream?
I’ve never eaten an octopus.
If the first letter of the word proceeding it makes a consonant-sound – b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z – then you use the article ‘a’.
I’d like a milkshake.
Could I have a coffee, please?
I would like to buy a kite.
So, we use ‘a’ and ‘an’ depending on the word that immediately follows the article. This may not always be the noun.
Emma is a doctor (noun).
Emma is an enthusiastic (adjective) doctor.
Now, let’s move onto more specific contexts.
We use ‘a/an’ with countable singular nouns to make clear to the reader who/what we are talking about.
Police are searching for a 15-year-old boy.
She is an aunt of mine.
We also use ‘a/an’ to show that they are one person/thing within a group.
He is an Apple employee.
She is a member of the club.
We don’t use ‘a/an’ with uncountable plural nouns.
Can you guess which sentence is correct and which is incorrect?
He was wearing a red socks.
He was wearing red socks.
She was making rice to go with the dinner.
She was making an rice to go with the dinner.
We also use ‘a’ or ‘an’ when we’re trying to explain who someone is or what job they have.
My mother is a professor.
Isabelle is an artist.
We sometimes use ‘a’ or ‘an’ with a singular noun to talk generally about something. We can also use these general statements to talk about all things of the same kind.
A man’s best friend is his dog.
(Meaning: every man’s best friend is his dog.)
A leopard can’t change its spots.
(Meaning: all leopards are incapable of changing their spots.)
We use the article ‘the’ when the person we’re speaking to knows exactly what we are referring to. We do this for the following reasons…
There is only one.
The Pope lives in Rome.
The Queen of England is very old.
We use ‘the’ with a superlative adjective (used to describe an object at the upper or lower limit of quality, for example, the tallest, fastest, slowest, highest, etc)
To show there is only one in that place or in that area.
We live in the house with the blue door.
(Meaning: there is only one house with a blue door.)
You’ll find the folder on the desk.
(Meaning: there is only one folder on the desk.)
We also use ‘the’ when referring to musical instruments
A friend of mine plays the piano.
I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the guitar.
We use ‘the’ with countries that have kingdom, states or republic in the name.
I visited the United Kingdom in 2017.
I’ve always wanted to see the United States.
My sister spent three years in the Argentine Republic.
We also use ‘the’ with countries that have plural names.
The Bahamas is beautiful this time of year.
My sister is on holiday in the Maldives.
We use ‘the’ with some mountains but not when it has mount or mountain in the name.
We climbed Mount Olympus. (Correct.)
We climbed the Mount Olympus. (Incorrect.)
We use ‘the’ before the name of rivers.
I walk past the river Thames every morning.
I’d love to sail on the river Severn.
We use ‘the’ in reference to newspapers.
I read The New York Times every morning.
My favourite newspaper is The Guardian.
My parents always read The Independent.
We also use ‘the’ for buildings or well-known pieces of art (the Louvre, the Mona Lisa), hotels (the Hilton), pubs (the Royal Oak), and families (the Obamas).
Download your free Articles Cheat Sheet right here!
Fill in the blanks with the correct article.
- I met him at _____ bakery.
- She and I have known each other for ____ year.
- We’re going to visit _____ school.
- I’ve never eaten ____ pineapple before.
- We have to climb ____ mountain.
Identify the sentences that contain mistakes.
- We’re going to sail River Thames.
- She’s a archaeologist.
- I visited United States when I was seven.
- How many times have you been to the Philippines?
- I’d love to ride a horse.
1. I met him at the/a bakery.
2. She and I have known each for a year.
3. We’re going to visit the school.
4. I’ve never eaten a pineapple before.
5. We have to climb the mountain.
1. We’re going to sail the river Thames.
2. She’s an archaeologist.
3. I visited the United States when I was seven.
4. How many times have you been to the Philippines? (No mistake in this sentence.)
5. I’d love to ride a horse. (No mistake in this sentence.)
This content was written and recorded by Intrepid English Teacher Thomas.
You can find out more about Thomas on his Intrepid English Teacher Profile Page.
Book a free trial lesson today to discuss this topic in more detail, and talk about your English learning goals with an experienced and friendly native English teacher.
If you have any questions, or you would like to request a topic for a future blog, you can contact us using the chat box, send us an email, or even drop us a message on any of our social media channels.
Your personal path to success in English
Thanks for subscribing to our newsletter!