Note: the following guide was written with the needs of IELTS-takers in mind; however, it can be used by anyone looking for an in-depth explanation of indefinite and definite English articles.
English has two main articles: a/an (indefinite) and the (definite). With very few exceptions (discussed later in this guide), singular nouns in English follow one of these words. To use them correctly, you must know when they both are and are not required.
A(n) – indefinite; used for unspecified singular items; indicates one of many. Typically used when a noun is mentioned for the first time, or when it comes after an adjective.
No (“Zero”) Article – plural of a(n); used for unspecified plural items as well as certain uncountable singular nouns.
The – definite; indicates specific singular and plural nouns. Typically used when a noun is repeated or is followed by a modifying (specifying) phrase.
The use of the also depends on shared knowledge between the speaker and the listener(s). For example, if two people are talking about a football (soccer) game, one of them might suddenly mention the goalie or the midfielder. In context, the person is clearly referring to specific players, so the definite article is used.
Compare the following:
Indefinite: I’m planning to buy a new iPhone. (= One iPhone in general; not a specific iPhone. Adjective + noun)
Definite: I’m planning to buy the iPhone that was just released. (= This is a specific type of iPhone. Noun + modifier)
Indefinite: Last year, my supervisor offered me a great opportunity. (= We don’t know what the opportunity is. Adjective + noun)
Definite: Last year, my supervisor offered me the opportunity to work remotely. (= This is a specific type of opportunity. Noun + modifier)
Indefinite: Although many people do not realize it, there is definitely a downside to working from home (= We do not know what the downside is. Adjective + noun)
Definite: The major downside to working from home is that it can become very difficult to separate one’s professional and personal lives. (= There is one major downside, and it is defined. Noun + modifier)
In the following sections, we’re going to look at each type of article in more detail.
Indefinite: A & An
The use of a vs. an depends on whether the first sound in the word after the article is a consonant or a vowel.
Use a + consonant sound:
- A book
- A hand
- A university (begins with a “yoo” sound)
- A UFO (unidentified flying object)
Use an + vowel sound:
- An increase
- An exciting event
- An hour (begins with an “ou” sound)
- An MD (the letter m = em)
In most cases, consonants make consonant sounds and vowels make vowel sounds; however, there are some important exceptions to be aware of.
The consonant “h” can make either a consonant sound (e.g., hand, horse) or a vowel sound (e.g., hour, heir).
The name of the vowel “u” is “yoo,” and this letter also makes the consonant sound “y” at the beginning of words, e.g., unit and universe.
The names of some consonants begin with vowel sounds. This is important to know because many common abbreviations (e.g., MD, MBA, SEO) begin with these letters.
- F – eff
- H – aytch
- L – ell
- M – em
- N – en
- R – ar
- S – ess
- X – ex
Note that in everyday conversation, English speakers frequently use a(n) rather than one to indicate that they want a single item. (One is typically used to emphasize that a person does not need multiple items.)
For example, a person ordering an item in a bakery is likely to say, I’d like a croissant, please, NOT, I’d like one croissant.
This a sound is typically pronounced uh (that is, as a schwa) and is not stressed and is usually attached to the end of the previous word, so it is easy to miss if you are not listening carefully. For example, the phrase above would be pronounced as, I’d likuh croissant.
Further Examples, A & An:
To reiterate: the indefinite article is often used when a noun appears alone (for the first time) or when an adjective is placed before it.
Correct: I am currently a student at City University and am seeking a part-time job.
Correct: It is an excellent idea to close the windows when it rains.
Correct: A good laptop and a reliable internet connection allow an employee to work remotely from almost anywhere.
In addition, a(n) is required in the following constructions:
I. A few = a small number (few without the article = almost none)
Correct: Most of the committee members were eager to approve the proposal; however, a few (= several, about 3-5) of them wanted to discuss the issue further.
Incorrect: Most of the committee members were eager to approve the proposal; however, few (= almost none) of them wanted to discuss the issue further.
II. A couple of = two
Correct: Most of the committee members were eager to approve the proposal; however, a couple of them wanted to discuss the issue further.
Incorrect: Most of the committee members were eager to approve the proposal; however, couple of them wanted to discuss the issue further.
III. A number of = many; OR: A large/small number
Correct: Some of the committee members wanted to vote on the proposal; however, a number (= many) of them wanted to discuss the issue further.
Correct: Some of the committee members wanted to vote on the proposal; however, a substantial number of them wanted to discuss the issue further.
Incorrect: Some of the committee members wanted to vote on the proposal; however, number of them wanted to discuss the issue further.
III. A + profession (to indicate a person’s occupation)
Correct: She is studying to become a doctor.
Incorrect: She is studying to become doctor.
The is used to indicate that there is only one of something.
Correct: Today, people all over the world communicate electronically. (= there is only one world)
To reiterate: nouns that take the are often defined by information that appears immediately after them.
Correct: The sandwich that I ate for lunch today wasn’t very good. (= I ate one specific sandwich for lunch today)
Correct: The speed of the internet allows people to communicate faster than ever. (= Specific type of speed)
Correct: A survey revealed that the employees of Company X prefer to work remotely. (= The specific workers at Company X)
Correct: My current home is very small; the house where I grew up is much larger. (= The specific house in which the person grew up)
The definite article is also required in the following constructions:
I. The majority
Correct: Today, the majority of people want a job that provides a good work-life balance.
Incorrect: Today, majority of people want a job that provides a good work-life balance.
II. The internet
Correct: People can find the answer to almost any question on the internet.
Incorrect: People can find the answer to almost any question on internet.
III. The environment
Correct: The disposal of plastic waste has caused serious problems for the environment.
Incorrect: The disposal of plastic waste has caused serious problems for environment.
IV. Before centuries and decades, e.g., the nineteenth century, the 1960s
Correct: In the 1970s, the energy crisis caused petroleum prices to peak.
Incorrect: In 1970s, the energy crisis caused petroleum prices to peak.
V. Before ordinal numbers, e.g., the first, the fifth, the thirtieth
Correct: The first thing to do when you arrive is to open the windows.
Incorrect: First thing to do when you arrive is to open the windows.
VI. Before the superlative (most/-est) form of an adjective, e.g., the best, the most interesting
Correct: The most important thing to do when you arrive is to open the windows.
Incorrect: Most important thing to do when you arrive is to open the windows.
VII. Before adjectives indicating that something is just one of something., e.g., only and same. These situations are specific by definition
Correct: I was so shocked by the announcement that the only thing I could do was smile.
Incorrect: I was so shocked by the announcement that only thing I could do was smile.
VIII. To indicate a group nationality, e.g., The Spanish = The people of Spain
Correct: The Spanish are known for eating dinner very late.
Incorrect: Spanish are known for eating dinner very late.
IX. Before political and business titles, NOT part of proper names
Note that the title is not capitalized in this use.
Correct: Michael Smith is the president of the corporation.
Incorrect: Michael Smith is president of the corporation.
X. Before most bodies of water (oceans, seas, rivers), mountain ranges, and deserts
Correct: I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time when I visited Vancouver.
Incorrect: I saw Pacific Ocean for the first time when I visited Vancouver.
Correct: One of my dreams is to go skiing in the Alps.
Incorrect: One of my dream is to go skiing in Alps.
Note: The comparative (more/-er) form an adjective can be used with either a(n) or the when only two options are presented. A is somewhat more common, but the is also acceptable.
Correct: You could drive into the city, but a better option would be to take the train.
Correct: You could drive into the city, but the better option would be to take the train.
Incorrect: You could drive into the city, but better option would be to take the train.
No (“Zero”) Article
In the singular, no article is typically used with many abstract nouns—nouns that refer to concepts rather than things that can be touched such as houses or cars—when they appear alone. These nouns are typically treated as uncountable.
Common endings of abstract nouns include the following:
- -ance/-ence (e.g., relevance, science)
- -asy (e.g., fantasy)
- -ism (e.g., activism)
- -ity (e.g., activity)
- -ment (e.g., replacement)
- -ness (e.g., fitness)
- -sion/-tion (expansion, creation)
Many IELTS Task 2 essays require the heavy use of these types of nouns. For example:
If your first language always uses the definite article before these types of singular nouns, this is a usage you need to be particularly careful with.
Correct: In recent years, [no article] society has become increasingly reliant on [no article] technology.
Incorrect: In recent years, the society has become increasingly reliant on the technology.
Note, however, that when certain abstract nouns are followed by a modifying phrase, they can be used with the because the meaning is specified.
Correct: The technology that people depend on for many daily activities requires a massive workforce to maintain.
Incorrect: Technology that people depend on for many daily activities requires a massive workforce to maintain.
No article is used in the following constructions:
I. Names of specific people and companies/brands (i.e., proper names)
Correct: Queen Elizabeth II is the UK’s longest reigning monarch.
Incorrect: The Queen Elizabeth II is the UK’s longest reigning monarch.
II. Names of cities and countries
Correct: I am hoping to visit my cousin in Canada next year.
Incorrect: I am hoping to visit my cousin in the Canada next year.
Exceptions include plural names, as well as names with Kingdom or Republic
- The United Kingdom (the UK)
- The United States of America (the USA, or just the US)
- The Republic of Korea
III. Forms of communication technology, e.g., email, video chat, sms
Correct: When I work remotely, I normally use text messaging to keep in contact with the other members of my team.
Incorrect: When I work remotely, I usually use the text messaging to keep in contact with the other members of my team.
IV. Before languages
Correct: I have been studying Spanish for almost five years.
Incorrect: I have been studying the Spanish for almost five years.
In addition, no article is used in these singular expressions:
- Go to college/university (NOT: go to the university)
- In context, e.g., We have to consider the issue in context (NOT: in the context)
- Get/Have Covid (NOT: the Covid)
- Go to church or temple (BUT: go to the mosque)
- Next week = the week after this one, e.g., I’ll do it next week, NOT I’ll do it the next week.
No article is used before plural nouns indicating general types of people or things. This is the plural equivalent of a(n) and is frequently used when an adjective comes before a noun.
To emphasize: “no article + plural noun” is the standard way of talking about things in general in English. While the singular form may be technically acceptable in terms of grammar, it is not common usage and leads to not-quite-right statements such as the ones below.
Correct: Dogs are my favo(u)rite type of animal; I like them a lot more than cats.
Incorrect: A dog is my favo(u)rite type of animal; I like it a lot more than a cat.
Correct: Dieters often struggle to maintain their weight loss.
Incorrect: A dieter often struggles to maintain his or her weight loss.
Correct: Shopping online gives modern (adj.) consumers (noun) more control over the purchasing process.
Incorrect: Shopping online gives the modern buyers more control over the purchasing process.
When a speaker or writer makes a series of generalizations over multiple sentences, no article is used before each new plural noun. For example:
There are obvious advantages to allowing people to work from home. One benefit is that it offers workers more flexibility. This is particularly helpful for parents of young children and employees who must commute long distances.
Comparison: A(n) vs. The vs. No Article
Indefinite (sing.): I watched a really good show on Netflix last night. (= There are many shows on Netflix, and I watched one that was really good. Adjective + noun)
Definite (sing.): The Netflix show that my friend recommended was really good. (= My friend recommended a specific Netflix show, and it was really good. Noun + modifier )
Indefinite (pl.): I like to watch Netflix because it usually has [no article] really good shows. (= Shows in general. Adjective + noun)
Definite (pl.): I usually really like the Netflix shows that my friend recommends. (Shows = the specific shows recommended by the friend. Noun + modifier)
Notice how very slight differences in phrasing can change the need for an article.
Definite (sing.): Electronic gadgets such as smartphones increasingly dominate the leisure time of young people, leaving them fewer opportunities for in-person socializing. (= Emphasis on specific type of leisure)
Indefinite (pl.): Electronic gadgets such as smartphones increasingly dominate young people’s leisure time, leaving them fewer opportunities for in-person socializing. (= Emphasis on young people in general)
Using Context to Determine Articles
Often, the choice of article is determined both by context and what a speaker or writer wants to emphasize.
In some cases, both a(n) and the may be acceptable, although they may convey different meanings.
In other cases, only a(n), the, or no article is correct.
Let’s start with this sentence.
During my trip to California, I visited the San Diego Zoo, where I saw tigers, koalas, and penguins.
The three types of animals can be written without an article because the writer is introducing these types of animals in general.
Now consider this version.
During my trip to California, I visited the San Diego Zoo. I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time there, but I did get to see the tigers, the koalas, and the penguins.
Here, the definite article is used to emphasize the specific groups of animals that the writer was able to see at the zoo. This version is just as correct as the previous version—it simply has a different focus and is more appropriate to this particular situation.
Let’s return to the original version and add another sentence.
During my trip to California, I visited the San Diego Zoo, where I saw tigers, koalas, and penguins. The tigers were beautiful but very fierce looking, and the koalas and the penguins were extremely cute.
When the animal names are repeated in the second sentence, the must be used because the writer is clearly referring to the specific animals seen at the zoo.
Now, look at this version.
During my trip to California, I visited the San Diego Zoo, where I saw animals of all shapes and sizes. Some of the creatures [= animals] were very large, and others were very small, but all of them were fascinating to watch.
Because creatures replaces animals and conveys the same meaning, the is required.
Let’s look at another example.
Last week, I purchased an iPad from a local electronics store. The iPad worked perfectly when I used it in the store, but when I arrived home, it wouldn’t turn on.
In the first sentence, an is used before iPad because the store is understood to have multiple iPads for sale, and the writer purchased one of them. An = one of many.
When iPad is repeated in the second sentence, it clearly refers to the specific device that was bought. As a result, the must be used.
Likewise, the use of a before local electronics store implies that there are multiple electronics stores in the area, and the writer purchased the iPad at one of them.
The would also be acceptable before local electronics store; however, it would change the meaning of the sentence.
Last week, I purchased an iPad from the local electronics store. The iPad worked perfectly when I used it in the store, but when I arrived home, it wouldn’t turn on.
The use of the implies that there is only one local electronics store.
When the word store is repeated in the second sentence, it clearly refers to the specific electronics store the writer shopped at, so the is the only acceptable article.
Now let’s look at the second sentence. We’re going to paraphrase iPad with device and tablet, and store with shop.
Last week, I purchased an iPad from a local electronics store. The device worked perfectly when I used it in the shop, but when I arrived home, it wouldn’t turn on. I tried charging the tablet,but that had no effect.
Even though device, shop, and tablet are new words, they clearly have the same meaning as nouns mentioned in the first sentence. As a result, they are definite, and the must be used in all cases.
Putting it Together
The most challenging part of using articles correctly is of course being able to integrate all the different uses discussed in this guide to and apply them spontaneously when you are speaking or writing.
So that said, let’s look at how articles are used in a longer paragraph.
Remember that in most cases:
- A(n) is used when a singular noun first appears, and when an adjective comes before the noun (a/an + adjective + noun). No article is used when the noun is plural, or with singular abstract nouns.
- The is used when a noun (or an equivalent) is repeated, and when specifying information comes after the noun (the + noun + modifier).
When I worked as (1) an executive at (2) a large company, I coordinated (3) teams across multiple offices.
(4) The firm relied on (5) email, videoconferencing, and group chats to keep its employees around (6) the world working smoothly together. If (7) a worker felt disconnected from (8) the team to which he or she was assigned, (9) the manager’s advice was often unrelated to (10) technology. Usually, (11) the employee was invited to spend (12) a week or so working on-site in order to collaborate with others in person.
- Unspecified: the writer was one executive of many
- Unspecified: one large company of many
- Unspecified: teams in general
- Specified/Repeated: firm = the large company mentioned in the first sentence
- Types of technology: no article
- There is only one world
- Specified: one particular worker
- Specified: team is defined by the phrase after the noun
- Specified: the manager of the particular employee
- Technology is an abstract noun
- Specified: the particular employee
- One week