Hi, people! Have you ever wondered what to choose among THE, A, AN before a noun or noun phrase while making an essay in English or composing a short paragraph in your Writing lesson? Choosing the right article is sometimes as tricky as picking a boy/girlfriend. Articles look insubstantial but don’t take them for granted. Your sentence may convey different meaning or turn odd if you’re not very trained at selecting the wrong article.The same thing happened to me in my first year learning English, but guess what, there some tricks you can practice to know how to use them correctly.
So what is article actually? Article is a word that may indicate the specificity of reference of a noun phrase. In a nutshell, there are three types of articles usage in English:
- indefinite articles
- definite article
- zero article
The indefinite articles include a and an. The word ‘indefinite’ itself may be defined as ‘not decided or not known’. Based upon that definition, indefinite article can be described as a type of article that shows or indicates that something or someone is not known yet. For example, I say “A blogger is someone who writes and runs a site”. The noun phrase ‘a blogger’ here means ‘any blogger who lives on earth, who comes from any country in the world, whose name we don’t know exactly’. Therefore by using indefinite article, speakers do not really know which particular thing or person is being discussed because the scope is general (too wide). That’s why a/an is always used to make a definition or generalization, e.g. “A pig is a four-legged, nasty, disgusting animal“. You can’t say “The pig is ….” to make a definition about pigs in general.
As we already know, article A precedes a noun/ noun phrase whose first sound is vowel and vice versa. I stress more: SOUND not LETTER. And watch out, as you must notice some exceptional cases here. For instance, ‘an honest attorney’ or ‘an herbal man’. The letter is H (consonant, thus supposedly uses article A not AN) but people pronounce ‘ho’ as a vowel /o/. We pronounce ‘honest’ /onest/ not /honest/. Another example is ‘a unit’ because it’s pronounced /yunit/ not /unit/. That’s what I mean by ‘SOUND not LETTER’. So we must pay attention to the pronunciation (instead of the spelling) to decide which indefinite article suits a noun phrase best.
One more essential thing about indefinite articles is use it only for a SINGULAR and COUNTABLE noun phrase. Some examples are ‘a tin of biscuits’, ‘an enchanting lass’. Always bear in mind that we can never say ‘I drink a water’ because you cannot count water. But you can say ‘I drink a gallon of water’. In daily conversations, however, people usually say ‘a coffee’ or ‘three cappuccinos’. It might sound wrong but I tell you that in daily context people love shorter expressions. Instead of saying ‘a cup of coffee’ or ‘three cups of cappuccino’ (which is far too long), they tend to say ‘a coffee’ or ‘three cappuccinos’ (although coffee and cappuccino is liquid and thus you can’t count them).
< span style="font-family:Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;font-size:small;">In writing a composition or a narrative, usually we introduce a noun/noun phrase using indefinite article. After the introduction, we are supposed to use definite article. Take a look at this:
“That morning it was suddenly raining. I had no umbrella with me as minutes earlier the sun was shining brightly. I had to stay at that filthy bus stop until a gorgeous girl came along and lent me an umbrella. She looked like a heavenly nymph coming down from the seventh heaven to rescue me from the raging rain. The umbrella had some tiny holes on it, yet it was fine so long as such a hottie lent it to me.”
Zero article means we must not use any of these articles (‘zero’ means ‘absent, not exist, omitted’). These are some exceptions where articles are not needed at all.
- An institution (not a building) after a preposition: bed, church, class, college, court, home, hospital, market, prison, school, sea, town, university, work. By saying ‘Sandy goes to school‘, we mean Sandy is a student attending a certain school. ‘Sandy is going to the school’ means Sandy is going to a given school building and it doesn’t necessarily mean she is a student or teacher there,nonetheless. Sandy is going to the school perhaps because she has a 7year-old child who is waiting for her there or she is a businesswoman who is about to see the principal. There are a lot more speculations no need to elaborate here.
- Years: never say ‘the 1970’ because without it the context (which year) is already clear.
Two points above are some of cases where articles are not needed. This list contains the other cases.
|people||Joe, Mrs Smith|
|seasons & months||Winter, February|
|continents||Africa, Asia, America, Europe|
|parts of day/night||midnight, midday, noon, night|
|countries||America, Britain, Arabia|
|cities & towns||London, New York, Tokyo, Sydney, Cairo|
|streets||Acacia Avenue, Pall Mall, Sunset Boulevard|
|buildings||Buckingham Palace, number 10|
|mountains||Everest, K2, Mont Blanc|
|games||football, tennis, bar billiards|
(extracted from ICALwiki)