Updated: Feb 17
This article is a comprehensive overview of the usage of articles in English. It explains the different types of articles, including definite (the), indefinite (a/an), and zero/no articles. The article also provides guidelines and rules for using articles in different contexts, including proper nouns, institutions, illnesses, and professions. The article also covers more advanced aspects of article usage, such as geographical names, musical instruments, and set phrases. The article concludes by emphasizing the importance of understanding the correct usage of articles in English and offers tips for improving one's proficiency.
English articles are usually not given enough attention by language learners, yet focusing on them would yield significant improvements in their English proficiency.
With a bit of review and some practice, many the difficulties experienced by English language learners can be overcome.
Generally, articles in English are either definite or indefinite. Certain words have the role of partitive articles, such as 'any' and 'some', which can refer to an undetermined amount of a mass noun.
Just as with English prepositions, articles are crucial for good results on language exams such as IELTS. In this post, we'll explore:
The Definite Article
The Indefinite Article
Partitive articles - some
The Definite Article
The Indefinite Article
Zero/ No Article
Articles in Phrases
The first ground rule of English articles is simple – a noun in the singular form normally takes either a definite (the) or an indefinite (a/an) article. This sounds obvious and quite simple, but so many ESL students make errors using these words. Knowing and using some basic rules helps to make not only one’s speech but also one's writing grammatically accurate
Okay then, so how do we know which article should be used?
Provided below are some common rules. As a CAE or IELTS taker looking for a high score, it is imperative to be familiar with them and know how to use them accurately, and it never hurts to go over them one more time to keeps things in one’s mind.
The definite article
The definite article is used with singular and plural nouns. It is used both with countable nouns and uncountable nouns:
To make definite or specific reference to a person or a thing that has already been referred to.
There’s the lady I was on about!
To refer to a person or thing that is specific because of what those talking already know. In the first example below, ‘the children’ are members of our family and ‘the swimming pool’ is the swimming pool we normally go to.
Let’s take the children to the swimming pool.
Did you switch the heating on?
There were drinks in the fridge but the beer was soon finished.
To generalise about a whole class or species, usually of plants or animals. A singular noun is used for this purpose. The first example means ‘The elephant species is hunted.’
The elephant is still hunted for its tusks.
The snowdrop is the first flower to arrive in the new year.
When it is followed by an adjective used as a noun indicating nationality or when generalising about a whole class of people. ‘The Dutch’ in the first example means ‘Dutch people in general’.
The Dutch are very skilful engineers.
The poor were crowding the streets of the capital.
The homeless were sheltered in the church.
Before the names of rivers, groups of islands, seas, oceans, and mountain ranges.
The Thames River – The Atlantic Ocean
The Himalayan Mountains – The Caspian Sea.
Before the names of certain public institutions, hotels, most newspapers, and some magazines.
The British Museum – The Guardian Newspaper
The Houses of Parliament – The Government
The Military – The Four Springs Hotel – The London Theatre.
Before parts of the body when these are referred to in an impersonal way.
A stone struck him on the hand.
Martin hit him on the head.
The definite article is rarely used with titles. Proper nouns that refer to persons, such as Lizzie and Stewart, and proper nouns used in conjunction with titles, such as Queen Elizabeth, Doctor Who, and Captain Cook, only take a definite article if they stand for the name of a thing such as a boat.
The Queen Elizabeth Il is on a long cruise.
A distinction is being made between people who have identical names. This use can give emphasis to the noun.
Ah, no. The Simon Johnson I know lives in Manchester.
I saw David Lewington in town this morning. – Not the David Lewington?
The indefinite article
The indefinite article is used when mentioning something for the first time. However, if we talk about the same thing or person again, it should take the definite article:
This morning I saw a man and a woman shopping together. The man bought a bottle of wine and the woman bought a few beers.
Both the blouse and the high-heels seemed inexpensive but stylish.
The indefinite article is used when we don’t want to or don’t have to be specific. In terms of meaning, it can be substituted by ‘any’:
I’m gonna move out of my folk's place so I’m looking for a new place to move into.
Why not buy a bike to ride to work to lose some weight?
Use the indefinite article to mean ‘one’:
Let’s have a biscuit or two with our cuppa coffee.
Add a pinch of salt to your mushy peas if you feel the taste is too bland.
No article is normally required when referring to uncountable nouns (unless you mean to point out some certain object):
Excessive consumption of sugar can be bad for your health.
I don’t really drink coffee anymore
BUT, we say:
A cup of coffee; A glass of milk; A bucket full of sand - Here the article refers to the nouns ‘cup’, ‘glass’ and ‘bucket’.
The sugar that you ordered has arrived - Here we are talking about some particular sugar.
No article is needed with proper names (obviously):
John and George are twin brothers.
We didn’t know that Nathan has divorced recently.
Life would be so much easier if there weren’t any exceptions where the rules are broken. They are illustrated in the next section of this entry.
The definite articles usually imply a certain object. For instance, if you say “The car is parked just around the corner”, then a question arises “What car?”. If you are unable to answer this question, then you probably don’t need the definite article.
If you still do not know which article should be used in any given situation, you can substitute it for a personal pronoun. It is not a good practice, but it works grammar-wise.
Other cases of article usage
Now let's cover the more advanced aspects of articles in English: individual cases, exceptions and much more.
Don’t forget that basic rules can be applied to most of them where appropriate (e.g. play the piano BUT buy a piano)
If you don’t feel like reading through the whole thing, just go to a summary for the shorter version of it.
The definite article
Geographical names. Probably the most sizeable part of English articles grammar.
Names of seas, oceans, and rivers (BUT not lakes):
The Black Sea
The Pacific Ocean
The Danube (BUT Lake Victoria)
Groups of mountains (BUT not individual mountains or peaks):
The Himalayas (BUT Ararat, Denali, Mount Elbert)
Names of countries that imply plurality:
The United Kingdom
The Czech Republic (and also The Congo and The Gambia)
Unique geographical features:
The Channel, The Antarctic
Compass points and geographical areas:
She lives in the North; There is some trouble in the Middle East;
The West strongly opposes the proposed changes.
Nations and groups of people:
The Americans, The Brazilians; The Christians, The Republicans
However, with institutions and people who work there the situation is the opposite (the police – force; police – people)
Unique objects and positions (titles):
The moon orbits the earth;
The President gave a speech about the current political climate;
She is the CEO of our company;
The ozone layer is growing thin;
The Winter War was a conflict
between Russia and Finland;
Names of newspapers:
The Guardian, The Sun, The Sunday Times
BUT names of magazines normally take no article, even if there is no word ‘magazine’ in the title:
Time Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Glamour
To emphasise the meaning, to make it stronger or more convincing. In speech, additional intonational stress is put on the definite article:
Disneyland is the place to go if you want to spend a great weekend with your kids.
Charles is the man for the job – he knows all ins and outs of this business.
‘… of …’ structures:
The university of Manchester;
The Tower of London;
The Cape of Good Hope.
However, if we do not use ‘… of …’ structure, then the zero article rule should be used:
Manchester University; Cape Cod
I wish I could play the piano.
My father used to play the guitar a lot when he was younger.
Classes of species:
The tiger is one of the biggest cats in existence.
The hippo is the most dangerous animal to humans.
The first time I saw him was in Japan back in 1995.
Superlative degrees of an adjective:
The most exciting thing about birthday parties is the presents.
The best way to spend your time here is to see the countryside.
The indefinite article (more)
Jobs, occupations and vocations:
My father is a doctor
She is training to become an electrician
To talk about rates or measuring:
$8 a kilo;
60 miles an hour;
twice a week
To emphasise that you do not know the person:
A Mr Hopkins dropped by yesterday and asked to give this note to you.
In a set phrase with ‘many a …’, which means ‘a great deal of', 'a large number of something or someone’:
Many a politician became corrupt; Many a man were killed in that war.
Zero/No article (more)
Schools, Prisons, Universities, Hospitals, Churches and all other institutions when we talk about their function.
I’m not coming to school today – I think I’ve got the flu.
He’s going to spend five years in prison for an armed robbery.
However, if we mean the building and not the function, we use the definite article:
I couldn’t park at the church so I had to circle around the block for twenty minutes.
I’m going to the prison to visit uncle Joey.
Illnesses, diseases and other medical conditions:
Last year he was diagnosed with cancer;
Arthritis can be very difficult to live with
There are some exceptions, most notable are the flu and the measles.
Names of streets, roads and avenues:
Go down Hastings street, turn left at the next T-junction.
However, -way words (highway, expressway etc.) can be used with the definite article:
The motorway goes all the way to the North of the country;
I’m on the highway to hell
Articles in phrases
A collection of rules for articles in set phrases and expressions, without any grouping.
In the morning/afternoon/evening, BUT At night
Few – not enough of something, less than the desired amount:
Few people came to my birthday
A few – some, a small amount (without the meaning of ‘not enough’)
I had a few people over at my place last Sunday.
Most – generalising to say ‘the majority, more than half’:
Most people don’t know how to drive a car with a manual transmission.
The most – talking about something specific in a superlative way:
Richard is the most capable worker on the floor.
Use the definite article 'the' to talk about a specific object, person, place, or idea that is known or understood by both the reader and listener, such as a particular event, landmark, monument, or concept.
Additionally, use 'the' when referring to a noun that denotes a group or implies plurality, such as a political group (e.g. the Democrats), a country (e.g. the United Kingdom), a body of water (but not lakes), a newspaper (but not magazines), musical instruments, or to emphasize a particular object or person.
Use an indefinite article when referring to an unspecified thing, to emphasize that any particular item can be chosen, to describe a profession, or to talk about rates (e.g. five days a week).
No articles are typically used with proper nouns, institutions (schools, prisons, hospitals (unless referring to the building, in which case the definite article 'the' should be used), and illnesses (except for 'flu' and 'measles').
It's important to realize that articles provide your listener or reader with more clarity, as they are specific modifiers that come before nouns or noun phrases. Like other adjectives, they serve to make the meaning of a noun clearer in your sentence.
The use of English Articles helps to create cohesion in language by linking words together in phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs.
If English is not your first language, understanding the correct usage of articles can be challenging. By following a few basic rules and continually learning and practicing your English, you can make great strides in your article use. With further exposure to spoken and written English, your proficiency with articles will likely grow.
Don't let the many rules and exceptions for English articles daunt you. Start by learning the basics and gradually move on to understanding their more complex usages.
Studying everything in one go may be overwhelming, but it's not necessary to be familiar with ALL the rules of the language to do well in the English exams like IELTS for example. Nevertheless, knowing them all can be extremely beneficial, particularly in the writing section.
English has three sorts of articles. Here are six examples, showing two incidents of each of the English articles.
That's an interesting idea.
He went to the museum.
Do not wash in hot water.
Give me a piece of that.
The Ambassador is coming.
Houses are expensive here.
Partitive article - Some
When the article 'some' appears before a plural noun it functions like an indefinite article:
He has some tickets for the game.
Some students decided not to attend the class.
However, when 'some' appears before a singular noun, it is being used as a partitive. This means that a part of something is indicated, or a partial (or indeterminate) quantity is referred to. It is often used after verbs of possession or consumption:
Do you have some free time this afternoon?
We're going to buy some milk.
I heard some bad news.
She has some money to spend.
Would you like some help?
Note: After expressions of quantity, the partitive article is not used:
Students buy a lot of sweets.
Today people have more activities than before.
In negative expressions, the partitive article 'some' generally becomes 'any' (this change will also occur in negative interrogatives):
She doesn't have any money.
They didn't have any milk.
Don't you have any money?