Article Rules in English Grammar

There are three articles in English: a, an, and the. They are called-Articles as they have significant role as parts of speech. They are also called Determiners, as they affect the meaning of noun.

There are two types of Articles

  • definite article (the) and
  • indefinite articles (a, an).

A and an are called Indefinite Articles because they are used when we do not speak of any particular person or thing; as, He bought a book.

The is known as the Definite Article. It, is used when we refer to a particular person or thing; as, He is reading the book, which he bought yesterday.

Indefinite Articles

The indefinite article is a or an. A is used before consonants such as a box, a pen, a lion.

An is used before words beginning with a vowel such as an ant, an eye, an orange, an umbrella, an interesting book.

If the first letter of a word is a silent h, it is treated as a vowel for this purpose: an hour, an heir, an honor, an honest man.

Some words begin with a vowel: but are pronounced as if they begin with y and are, therefore, preceded by, a: a university, a European, a useful hint.

Use of ‘a’ before Consonants‘a’ before Vowel sounding as ‘yu’/ ‘wa’
a box
a book
a child
a chair
a kite
a rat
a teacher
a European
a utensil
a university a eulogy
a unique book
a one-rupee note
a one-eyed man
a one-day match
Use of ‘an’ before consonant sounding as Vowel
an hour (‘h’ silent)
an honest man (‘h’ silent)
an heir
an MA, an MSc
an MP
an MLA
an SDO
an NCC

Use of Indefinite Article

(a) It is used when we refer to a single countable noun in general. That is, when we are not referring to something or someone specific or when the reader does not know which one is referred to:

  • He gave a book for you this morning.
  • A friend of yours called on you.

(b) It is used in the sense of ‘one’:

  • I have bought a new shirt.
  • I ate an apple after lunch.

Note: We use one instead of a, when we wish to draw attention to the fact that there is only one: I have one pen, not two.

(c) It is used with the meaning ‘each’:

  • I read at least one book a month.
  • My salary has increased by 5000 a month.

(d) It is used when we refer to the names of occupations:

  • He wants to become an engineer.
  • My father is a teacher.

(e) It is used in a general sense with a singular countable noun that names an example of a class of things:

  • An elephant is a useful animal.
  • A cold drink on a hot day is always welcome.

(f) It is used in exclamations before singular countable nouns:

  • What a lovely baby!
  • Such a shame!

(g) It is used in expressions of speed, price, ratio:

  • The train fare is Rs. 20 a person.
  • The bike travelled at 40 kilometers an hour.

(h) It is used with certain numerical expressions:

  • a dozen pencils,
  • a thousand years,
  • a million dollars,
  • a couple of goats.

(i) It is used when we refer to a person, whose name we use with a title, is unknown to us:

  • A Mr. Sharma wishes to speak to you.
  • A Dr. Singh has applied for the post.

Indefinite Article is NOT used

(a) When the noun is uncountable:

  • My new bag is made of leather.
  • Sand is used in making glass.

But it is used before uncountable nouns when we imply a comparison between an uncountable noun and others of the same kind:

  • A paper of this quality is very expensive.
  • A purer water than this does not exist.

(b) When a noun is the name of a meal:

  • We had breakfast at seven o’clock.
  • I had dinner before going out.

If we use the name of a meal in the sense of a party, the indefinite article is required:

  • There is going to be a dinner for the old boys of the school.

(c) There is no plural of the indefinite article, but ‘some’ or ‘any’ is the usual equivalent of the plural.

  • I saw a dog in the field. I saw some dogs in the field.
  • She ate an orange. She didn’t eat any bananas.

(d) If we remember that ‘a’ is the unemphatic form of ‘one’, we shall not forget that it cannot be used with uncountable nouns. The equivalent of ‘a’ with uncountable nouns is ‘some’ or ‘any’.

If we want to emphasise the singleness of the uncountable nouns, we must put in front of it a phrase like ‘a piece of, ‘a pound of, ‘a bottle of’.

  • Would you like some tea? Yes, I would like a cup of tea.
  • We don’t need any tea. I bought a kilogram of tea yesterday. Note: Use of a before little, few, etc.

Use of ‘a’ before little, few. Etc.

(i) Little has a negative meaning: ‘hardly any’.

  • I have little water to drink. (Practically I have no water.)

(ii) A little means a small amount.

  • A little water was available after the drought.

(iii) The little means a small amount but whole of it.

  • The little water available after the drought was given only to children.

The same principle is applicable to few, a few, the few when we refer to countable nouns.

  • Few people can survive here.
  • He has a few close relatives.
  • He lost the few close relatives he had.

Definite Article ‘The’

  1. Definite article (the) is used

(a) When the noun is known (to the reader or the listener).

  • The shirt I am wearing was gifted by my cousin. (The words ‘I am wearing’ tell us which shirt is referred to.)

(b) When there is only one in existence.

  • The sun has risen high.
  • The sea covers a large part of the Earth.

(c) When the reader or listener knows which one is referred to.

  • Give me the pen. (i.e., the pen we are talking about, which you borrowed, etc.)
  • The school closes at four. (i.e., the one we are in, where I work, which we are going to this morning, etc.)

(d) Before adjectives or participles to represent a class of people.

  • This scheme is meant for the poor.
  • That area is inhabited by the rich.

(e) Before oceans, seas, rivers, deserts.

  • the Atlantic, the Bay of Bengal, the Thar, the Ganga.

(f) When the name of a country consists of an adjective + a noun, the definite article is required unless the adjective is North, South, East, West, Upper, Lower, Great, Greater or New.

  • the United Kingdom, the United Arab Republic, the United States of America.
  • But: North Korea, Upper Volta, Great Britain, New Zealand
  • Three countries with one-word names take the definite article: the Lebanon, the Congo, the Netherlands.
  • Note also: the North Pole, the South Pole.

(g) When we refer to names of hotels, cinemas, theatres and ships.

  • He usually stays at the Taj Hotel.
  • They went to the PVR last night to see a movie.
  • Vasco Da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and ventured into the Indian Ocean.

(h) Before ordinal numbers which make the nouns definite:

  • The first thing we must add to the recipe is flour.
  • The second summit of the organization was held in December.

(i) With superlative adjectives which make a noun definite:

  • Of all the girls in the competition, she is the most beautiful. He gave me the latest phone.

Note: When the word most is used in the sense of very or the majority, it is not a superlative and does not require the definite article:

  • I find his story most interesting.
  • I have read most of the articles in this magazine.

(j) With adjectives used as nouns:

  • The sick and the lame must be shown mercy.
  • The young have to support the old.

(k) ‘Next’ and ‘last’ normally particularize:

  • The next question is the last one in the list.

‘The’ is omitted when next and last refer to the period immediately before or after the present.

  • Jane got married last week, and Jim is getting married next week.

(i) When ‘the’ with a singular countable noun represents a whole class of things:

  • The elephant lives longer than most animals.
  • The atomic bomb was invented in 1944.

(m) With the names of most newspapers and magazines:

  • The Times of India, the Illustrated Weekly, the Statesman.

(n) Before the names of certain well-known books:

  • The Bible, the Vedas, the Quran, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Arabian Nights.

(o) Before plural proper names, such as names of peoples (nations) and families:

  • The Italians live in Italy.
  • The English are fond of adventure.

Note: The English, but Englishmen; the French, but Frenchmen.
(p) Before comparatives in constructions like:

  • The more it rains, the worse the roads will be.
  • The older he gets, the more difficult it is for him to find a job.

(q) Before certain expressions of time: in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening on the previous day, on the day before, on the following day, on the day after on the previous morning (afternoon, evening, night) the week before last, the week after next.

But the following expressions of time do not take the definite article: last week, month, year, midnight, midday, noon; next week, next month, next year.

Definite Article (the) is omitted

(a) Before plural nouns used for a whole class:

  • Snakes are often dangerous.
  • Bicycles cost more than they used to.

(b) Before uncountable nouns with a general meaning:

  • Steel is made from iron.
  • He studied History.

Abstract nouns belong to this category, as:

  • Necessity is the mother of invention.
  • Curiosity killed the cat.

If an uncountable noun is defined, it ceases to have a general meaning and therefore takes the definite article:

  • The sweets we bought yesterday have gone bad.
  • The paper in Norway is of high quality.
  • The generosity he has shown us is surprising.

(c) Before the names of languages used as nouns:

  • He learnt Russian.
  • My brother studied Sanskrit.

If the word for the language is used as an adjective, the definite article is necessary:

  • The Russian language is spoken by millions of people.
  • He thought there was a great future for the Konkani language.

(d) Before ‘man’ used in the sense of ‘mankind’:

  • Man has more intelligence than the animals.

(e) In expressions for means of travel used generally: by rail, by bus, by sea, by road, by air. When we are more specific the definite article is required: He travelled by the 8 o’clock train.

(f) In certain other expressions: at home, on top, on foot, on loan.

  • He stayed at home to receive the guests.
  • After winning the championship, Raman felt on top of the world.
  • He daily walked five miles on foot.
  • Ritu has bought her new flat on loan from a bank.

There is a difference in meaning between the two sentences:

  • He has gone to church.
  • He has gone to the church.

In the first sentence, we imply that he has gone to church for the usual purpose, namely, to worship; in the second, that he has gone there for some other purpose — possibly to do a job.

Similarly, note the difference between the following sentences.

  • Some students didn’t come to school this morning.
  • My father came to the school to talk to the headmaster.

Other common words of this kind are: college, university, hospital, market, prison. Compare:

  • My brother is in hospital. (i.e., he is ill)
  • My sister, who is a nurse, is at the hospital.
  • The criminal is now in prison.
  • The warden lives in the prison.

Repetition of Articles

  1. When two or more adjectives qualify the same noun, the article is used before the first adjective only; but when they qualify different nouns, the article is used before each adjective.
  • She bought a pink and blue frock. (She bought one frock in two colors -pink and blue.)
  • She bought a pink and a blue frock. (She bought two frocks, one pink and the other, blue.)
  1. When two or more connected nouns refer to the same person or thing, the article is normally used before the first only; but when two or more connected nouns refer to different persons or things, the article is used before each.
  • The painter and sculptor had come. (There is only one person who is a painter as well as a sculptor.)

The painter and the sculptor had come. (There are two different persons, one is a painter, the other is a sculptor.)

© article rules in English grammar.

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