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Three little words (‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’)… but not as easy as they might seem.

Every time we use a noun, we have to decide whether or not to use an article, and if we
decide that an article is necessary, we have to decide which one. We base these choices on a
complex interaction of factors including meaning, shared knowledge, context, and whether
the noun is singular, plural or uncountable.

What are they?

The articles a/an and the belong to a group of words called 'determiners' (determiners also include
possessives like my, demonstratives like this and quantifiers like all). Determiners signal whether
information is new or familiar, and tell us about quantity.

Indefinite article Definite article Plural (often used as ‘Zero’ or no article

plural form of a/an)
a the some []
an any

Where do they come in sentences?

Articles are part of noun phrases and come at the beginning of them, either immediately before a
noun or an adjective, or before a combination of adverb, adjective and noun.

I heard a noise. (noun)

I heard an eerie noise. (adjective + noun)
I heard the strangely muffled noise of an animal in pain. (adverb + adjective + noun)

How do we choose articles? Grammar Rule 1

We can leave articles out before:

 Plural nouns: [] Dreams often come true
 Uncountable nouns: [] Give me money.

We can only leave an article out before a singular noun if we replace it with another determiner:

 Possessive adjectives: her brother.

 Demonstrative adjectives: that book.
 Many quantifiers: any occasion, each day.
This table shows the choices we can make:

singular nouns plural nouns uncountable nouns

a/an a book
no article [] books [] rice
the the book the books the rice
Grammar Rule 2: a or an?

I saw a lion and an elephant at the zoo.

We use 'a' before a word that starts with a consonant sound. We use 'an' before a word that starts with a
vowel sound.

I saw a lion and an elephant.

Be careful!
Note the important thing is the sound of the letter:

-‘u’ is a vowel, but it can sound like the consonant ‘y’. When it sounds like the vowel, we use ‘an’ (an
umbrella). When it sounds like a consonant we use ‘a’ (a university).

Be careful!
‘h’ is also peculiar. Depending on whether the ‘h’ sound is pronounced or not, a or an is used.

e.g. a hat, a horse but an honour.

Practice 1: a/an

Write a or an, and put a slash (/) if you can’t use either:
1. ____ old book 6. ____ new airport 11. ____ unit of measurement
2. ____ window 7. ____ airport 12. ____ air
3. ____ horrible haircut 8. ____ shoes 13. ____ ugly duckling
4. ____ bread 9. ____ ugly duckling 14. ____ sunglasses
5. ____ hour 10. ____ rubbish 15. ____ scissors

Note: for plural and uncountable nouns, you can use:

a) some: I have some water. [uc] I have some vegetables. [pl] +ve statement
b) any: I don’t have any water. / Do you have any water? -ve statement or
I don’t have any vegetables. /Do you have any vegetables? question
Grammar Rule 3: a/an or the?

I saw a lion and an elephant at the zoo. The lion was scary. ( = you know which lion: the one that I saw
and told you about).


the= 'we know which one(s)'

We say the doctor, the salt or the dogs (for example), when we expect the listener/reader to know
which doctor, salt or dogs we are talking about.

In other cases, we use a /an, some/ any or no article.

- I've been to the doctor. (You know which one: my doctor.)
- I’ve been to see a doctor. (You don’t know which doctor – it is not my regular one)
- A doctor must like people (=any doctor at all)

- Could you pass me the salt? (The listener knows that it is the salt on the table that is meant.)
- We need some more salt. (not particular 'known' salt)

Q: what sort of noun is ‘salt’? Why is ‘some’ used instead of ‘a’?

- I saw a dog on the street (reader/listener doesn’t know which dog)

-I saw the dog on the street again (reader/listener knows which dog is being referred to).

Be careful!
First we use ‘a’ or ‘an’. After we use ‘the’.
She had a cheese sandwich and crisps for lunch. She didn’t like the sandwich.
We stayed in an old hotel. There was a swimming pool in the hotel.

Be careful!
If there is only one of the thing, we use ‘the’.

I went to the cinema in Saar (there’s only one). The sun was shining brightly (there’s only one).

Be careful!

Many clauses and phrases make the noun known to the listener by telling the listener which
person or thing we are talking about. Let's look at an example sentence:

Can you give me the book on the table?

We use THE in this sentence because the phrase "on the table" tells the listener which book
we are referring to. We are not talking about other books, we are talking about a specific
book that the listener can see or already knows about.

Practice 2: a/an or the

1. Did you see movie about Dian Fossey's work with mountain gorillas? It

was amazing film.

2. I love good movie about historical figures or historical events. I thought "Lincoln" was

fantastic. And Daniel Day-Lewis was great in film.

3. I would love to take luxury cruise next year to exotic location such as

Indonesia or Panama.

4. Jimmy did not enjoy cruise to Alaska because it was too cold and rainy. The weather

ruined entire trip.

5. Let's find place where we can just sit for couple of hours, drink some

coffee, and have good chat.

6. That is place where Sidney proposed to Meryl. Isn't that beautiful


7. Suddenly, password Sandra always used to log in to her email didn't work anymore.

Somebody had hacked in and changed password.

8. When Nick was on safari in Tanzania, he saw cheetah hunting prey. He took some

beautiful video of cheetah.

9. Did you enjoy book I recommended to you? Wasn't that exciting novel?
10. I need smartphone which allows me to check my email and use Facebook. I really

want phone with good battery life.

(from - lots more exercises to help you practice)

Grammar Rule 4: general vs particular

- Parrots are really noisy birds. (parrots in general, not a particular group of parrots)
-The parrots outside are really noisy birds. (a particular group of parrots, not parrots in general).

- Have you fed the dogs? (The listener obviously knows which dogs are meant.)
- Do you like dogs? ( = dogs in general)

- I need a phone. (Not a specific phone, any phone)

-Mark wants a bicycle. (Not a particular bicycle, a bicycle in general)

When we are talking about things in general, we don’t use an article (sometimes ‘no article’ is called
‘zero article’). e.g. [] Dogs are more loyal than [] cats.
If we’re talking about a singular noun (a phone, a bicycle), but not a particular one, we use a/an.
e.g. I need to get a new phone.
If we are talking about one of a group or one of many possibilities, we use a/an.
e.g. I borrowed a book from the library. [it was one of many books I could have borrowed]
It is a good song. [there are many other good songs]

Practice 3: a/an, the or ‘zero article’?

1. John bought new car last week. Unfortunately, car broke down after just
two days.

2. We went to movie yesterday. Even though it got good

reviews, movie was absolutely terrible. I was so mad, I went to box office
and asked for my money back.

3. Our teacher gave us test today. It was really hard test. There
were questions on there which I didn't even understand.

4. Excuse me, is there post office around here? I need to buy stamp.
5. We have beautiful lake behind our house. Every winter, lake freezes over
and we can go ice skating. When I was kid, I used to spend hours skating
back and forth across ice.

6. Carrie works for amazing organization; organization

provides food and supplies for children in developing world.

7. A: Is there water on Moon?

B: Yes, scientists have discovered ice there.

8. When I turned on my new laptop, screen exploded! Luckily, it has good

warranty. Either they will replace broken screen or send me brand new

9. A: I know great new restaurant called Mumbai on 8th Avenue. It's Indian
restaurant with incredible food.
B: Oh yeah, I know that restaurant; chef is good friend of mine.

10. Wow, I can't believe how much gallon of gas costs these days. If price
keeps going up, I'm going to buy electric car.

Tricky exceptions to the rules

1. We use a/an to mean ‘every’ in expressions of time and quantity

e.g. Forty times an hour. Thirty dirhams a kilo.

2. We use the in lots of fixed expressions, where there is no obvious familiarity/’common ground’
(i.e. the reader/listener might not know which one). Examples:
Entertainment I went to the cinema.
the shops.
Transport I arrived at the airport.
the bus stop.
the station.
Musical instruments I play the piano.
the guitar.
the violin.
Facilities I went to the bank.
the supermarket.
3. Usually with proper nouns we don’t use an article, but we use the in the names of items in the
following categories:
rivers the Nile
mountain ranges the Andes
oceans and seas the Pacific
deserts the Sahara
groups of islands the Maldives
hotels the Hilton
cinemas the Odeon
political bodies the Labour Party, the Government
countries whose names the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, the Philippines
include political terms the Kingdom of Bahrain (or just ‘Bahrain’)
or plural nouns
newspapers The Guardian (when no article is in the title of the
newspaper, we add it when referring to it: I read it in the
Daily Mirror).

4. No article:

a) We don’t use an article before the name of institutions (hospital, church, school, prison,
college, university, etc.) when we want to show someone is part of it.
e.g. Is she still in [] hospital? (i.e. as a patient)

Has he come home from [] school yet? (i.e. he is a student at the school)

b) We don’t usually use an article when talking about meals.

e.g. She came to [] lunch.
I had [] breakfast.
What do you want for [] dinner?
c) We leave out the after verbs of motion with work, home and bed.
e.g. She left [] work. I got [] home. She went to [] bed.
REVIEW – Self-directed

1) Need a reminder about some of the rules? Watch the video

2) Extra Practice
1. I like blue T-shirt over there better than red one.
2. Their car does 150 miles hour.
3. Where's USB drive I lent you last week?
4. Do you still live in Bristol?
5. Is your mother working in old office building?
6. Carol's father works as electrician.
7. The tomatoes are 99 pence kilo.
8. What do you usually have for breakfast?
9. Ben has terrible headache.
10. After this tour you have whole afternoon free to explore the city.

3) Complete the cloze (gap fill) activity in Moodle.

** Don’t forget to copy your work to your Independent Learning Blog **

There are also LOTS of practice activities here, as well as written explanations.