Learning Objectives

  • Correctly identify and use indefinite and definite articles

If you thought prepositions were “little” words, then wait until we consider the part of speech called articles. Articles are the smallest of the small words but still serve an important function in sentences.

We have three articles in the English language: aan and the.

The is the definite article, which means it refers to a specific noun in a group.

A or an is the indefinite article, which means it refers to any member of a group. You would use the indefinite article when you aren’t trying to distinguish a particular noun.

The article "a".

Figure 1. The article “a” is unspecific and non-distinguishable.

The definite article indicates a level of specificity that the indefinite does not. “An apple” could refer to any apple; however “the apple” is refers to one specific apple.

There are also cases in which no article is required:

  • Here are examples of generic nouns:
    • The cars have accelerators. 
    • Cars have accelerators.
    • Happiness is contagious.

You may also see where there is no need for an article with most (not all!) proper names like Sabrina, France, London, etc.

For example, we say in English, “I live in the United States of America.”

It in incorrect to say, “We lived in the France for a year.”

Indefinite Article

In English, the indefinite article takes the two forms a and an. The indefinite article means “one,” usually without emphasis.

Distinction between a and an

You’ve probably learned the rule that an comes before a vowel, and that a comes before a consonant. While this is generally true, it’s more accurate to say that an comes before a vowel sound, and a comes before a consonant sound. Let’s look at a few examples with a:

The article "an".

Figure 2. Remember,”an” only comes before a vowel sound, not any word that begins with a vowel.

  • a box
  • a HEPA filter (HEPA is pronounced as a word rather than as letters)
  • a one-armed bandit (pronounced “won. . . “)
  • a unicorn (pronounced “yoo. . . “)

And now with an:

  • an apple
  • an EPA policy (the letter E read as a letter still starts with a vowel sound)
  • an SSO (pronounced “es-es-oh”)
  • an hour (the h is silent)
  • an heir (pronounced “air”)
Note: Some speakers and writers use an before a word beginning with the sound h in an unstressed syllable: an historical novel, an hotel. However, when the h is clearly pronounced, this usage is now less common, and a is preferred.

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Definite Article

The article "the".

Figure 3. “The” is specific.

The definite article the is used when the referent of the noun phrase is assumed to be unique or known from the context.

For example, in the sentence “The boy with glasses was looking at the moon,” we can assume that, in this context, the reference is to only one boy and only one moon.

The can be used with both singular and plural nouns, with nouns of any gender, and with nouns that start with any letter. This is different from many other languages (like el or las in Spanish), which have different articles for different genders or numbers. The is the most commonly used word in the English language.

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Word Order

In most cases, the article is the first word of its noun phrase, before any other adjectives and modifiers.

The little old red bag held a very big surprise.

There are a few exceptions, however:

  • Certain words, such as all, both, half, and double, come before the definite article when used with the phrases (all of the team, both of the girls, half the time, double the amount).
  • Such and what precede the indefinite article (such an idiot, what a day!).
  • Too, so, as, and how generally precede the indefinite article (think of these as qualifying nouns): too great a loss, so hard a problem, as delicious an apple as I have ever tasted, I know how cute the puppy is.
  • Quite often precedes the indefinite article: quite a long letterNote: the phrase a quite long letter is also a correct construction. However the two have different meanings:
    • In quite a long letterquite modifies letter: it’s quite a letter.
    • In a quite long letterquite modifies long: the letter is quite long.

Try It

Read the following passage and make any necessary changes to the articles. Explain your reasoning for each change.

A Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is a space telescope that was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990 and remains in operation. Although not the first space telescope, Hubble is one of the largest and most versatile, and is well known as both an vital research tool and an public relations boon for astronomy. The HST is named after the astronomer Edwin Hubble.

Hubble’s orbit outside the distortion of Earth’s atmosphere allows it to take extremely high-resolution images. Hubble has recorded the some of most detailed visible-light images ever, allowing the deep view into space and time.