Center for Writers - Resources

ARTICLES: A, AN, and THE


The words a, an, and the are articles. A and an are indefinite articles; the is a definite article. Articles are traditionally classed as limiting adjectives, but since they always signal that a noun will follow, some modern grammars call them determiners.

1.        A and an are indefinite articles. They precede a noun when the thing named has not
            already been identified for the reader. Use a before words beginning with consonant
            sounds, including those spelled with an initial pronounced h and those spelled with
            vowels that are sounded as consonants: a historian, a one-o'clock class, a university, etc.
            Use an before words that begin with vowel sounds, including those spelled with an
            initial silent h: an orgy, an L. an honor.

            When you use an abbreviation or acronym in writing, the article that precedes it
            depends on how the abbreviation is to be read: She was once an HEW undersecretary.
            (HEW is to be read as three separate letters, and h is pronounced "aitch.") Many
            Americans opposed a SALT treaty. (SALT is to be read as one word, salt.)

2.        The is a definite article: it precedes a noun when the thing named has already been
            identified for the reader.

Articles often present problems for those whose native language is not English, because many languages use articles differently or less frequently than English does. The main conventions of using articles in English can be summarized as follows:

1.        Use a, an, or the with a singular count noun - that is, a singular noun that names
            something countable: a glass, an apple, the mirror. Count nouns can form plurals with
            the addition of -s or -es (glass, glasses) or in some irregular way (child, children).

2.        Do not use a or an with a plural noun: apples (not an apples). And do not use a or an
            with a mass noun - that is, a singular noun that names something not normally countable:
            mail (not a mail), supervision (not a supervision). Unlike count nouns, mass nouns do 
            not form plurals. Note, however, that many nouns are sometimes count nouns and
            sometimes mass nouns: in We have a room for you, room is a mass noun meaning
            "space"; in We have room for you, room is a count noun meaning "walled area."

3.        Do not use the with a plural noun or a mass noun when the noun refers generally to all
            representatives of what it means: Men (not The men) and women (not the women) are
            different. Democracy(not The democracy) fosters freedom (not the freedom) of
            expression (not the expression). Use the when referring to one or more specific
            representatives of what the noun names: The women came and went.