A, an, the or nothing at all…

Why do I have to use them?   I don’t see the point of them.   You understood me, didn’t you?

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard this, or something like this, said by students about using articles in English. Learning to use definite (the) and indefinite (a, an, Ø) articles can be challenging for learners whose first language does not use articles to define common nouns. This, of course, is made worse by helpful textbooks and websites that spout out rule after rule to memorize. (I once found one that had a list of 49 rules to remember) No wonder it’s so difficult.

But it doesn’t have to be.

For those whose languages don’t have articles, the key is to understand their function – why English speakers use them and what they do.

But first, let me tell you a little story…

Alicia, from the U.K., was a fairly new member of a project team whose members were spread out all over the company. She got an email from the project manager in Warsaw (whom she hadn’t met yet) that read:

Good morning Alicia,

I think it will be a good idea for you to join me at the regional meeting next Thursday. Please make the arrangements with Sara at the travel desk. She has all the details.

As well, please send me the report on last week’s training sessions for my review.



Alicia went into a panic – why?

Not because she had to go to the conference. Not because she had never been to the travel desk. She went into a panic because she had no recollection of a report on training sessions. She was new and didn’t want to look bad in the eyes of her new boss. She wasted close to twenty minutes frantically searching and asking co-workers about a report. No one knew anything about a training session report. According to the email, she should know which report to send.

What was wrong?

Tadeusz had mistakenly written the report instead of a report. If he had written a, Alicia would have instantly understood that he wanted her to write a new report and send it to him. Using ‘a’ would indicate that he wanted one undefined, or previously unknown or new – report. Using ‘the’ indicated that both he and she should know about a training session report that that has already been written and probably has been talked about.

Now of course Alicia eventually wrote him back asking for clarification, but all that wasted time and effort…

You see, articles are used to indicate whether information is new (unknown/undefined) or old (known/defined).

So let’s start off with the point that articles (a, an, the, Ø) are used primarily with common nouns. Common nouns are such things as chair, cow, water, pencil and so on. Proper nouns, the names of things, rarely need articles unless you are trying to distinguish between two or more things with the same name. For example: Which London are you talking about? I’m talking about the London located in Canada.

The 4 articles in English are the – definite article, and a, an, and Ø – the indefinite articles.  There is no difference between a and an in meaning (they both mean ‘one’). An is used to help in pronunciation, which I will explain later. The Ø, also known as the ‘zero article’, means that no article is required before this noun.

That brings us to how to decide which article to use. There are 4 possible steps to deciding which article to use. They are:

  1. First – decide if the noun is defined or not. If it’s defined, you’re done – use The. If it’s undefined go to #2
  2. Then – determine if it’s uncountable or countable. If uncountable you’re done – use Ø. If it’s countable go to #3
  3. Then – determine if it’s plural or singular. If it’s plural you’re done – use Ø. If it’s singular go to #4
  4. Then determine if it’s a or an.  And for this it’s all about the pronunciation.


Let’s take a look at the same thought process visually.

  1. Decide if the noun is defined or undefined.

So how do we determine if the noun is defined or undefined?  As the speaker (or writer) you consider a noun as defined when you know (or you assume) that the listener knows the thing you are talking about. There are different ways this can happen:

  • Only one of something. – Shared world schema – The Queen of England. The Mediterranean sea.
  • Something has been mentioned before in conversation or text. – I bought a pen. The pen is red.
  • Defined clearly- Which one? – The shop on the corner. The following day. (adjective of uniqueness )
  • Superlative and ranking. – By their nature unique. The fastest car. The first man on the moon. The last day of the month. The end.
  • The situation or context is clear. – Close the door. I’m going to the library. (common exophoric knowledge)
  • The noun has a modifying clause. – Do you remember the girl who went camping with us? The man that was here yesterday.

As a speaker (or writer) you consider a noun undefined when you don’t know (or can’t assume) that the listener knows the thing you are talking about. For example:

  • It’s the first time you’ve mentioned this thing in conversation or text (and it is not otherwise clearly defined, unique, modified or ranked) – I have a problem. The problem is that I don’t know how to use articles.
  • You have no definite amount of the noun you are talking about in mind. – Can I have Ø apples please? Do you have Ø children?
  • You have no definite or particular one of the noun you are talking about in mind. I’m sending my son to a camp this summer. I’m buying a car next month. May I have an orange please? John is a doctor. Robert is an Englishman. I was born on a Thursday. (one of many)

So you’ve decided – if defined, you are done – use the. If undefined go to:

  1. Decide if the noun is countable or uncountable.

Countable nouns are things, people, places, or ideas that can have a number attached to them. They have a singular and plural form: cow/cows, man/men, city/cities, feeling/feelings. Uncountable nouns cannot have a number attached to them. They do not have a plural form: information, equipment, butter, trash.

So you’ve decided – if uncountable, you are done – use Ø. If countable go to:

  1. Decide if the noun is singular or plural.

The plural of all regular countable nouns end in “s”: cow/cows, flower/flowers, memo/memos.  Irregular countable nouns use a different form or spelling of the word. Some examples of irregular plurals are: child/children, foot/feet, tooth/teeth, man/men, mouse/mice.

So you’ve decided – if plural, you are done – use Ø. If singular go to:

  1. Decide which to use – a or an.

An is just a variant of a. They mean exactly the same thing – one. The word “a” is most common and used before all words starting with a consonant sound. The “n” in the word “an” helps to ease pronunciation of words that start with a vowel sound. Note here I say sound not the letter. If you try to say “a egg” it has a stuttering or machine gun sound effect, where “an egg” flows smoothly from vowel to vowel. It is similar to the Polish word(s) “w” and “we” when used before consonants.


So there you have it. Definite and indefinite articles in 4 steps. With practice this gets faster and becomes routine. It should be noted that there are instances where abstract nouns can be troublesome (and perhaps I’ll try and tackle them in another post), but generally you should be fairly confident using this little set of tools.

Hope it helps.


Did you know?

The word ‘the’ is the most frequently used word in the English language.  The word ‘a’ is ranked at number 5.

‘The’ makes up about 5% of all the words in print between 1800 and 2000 according to google.

‘The’ is used 28269 times in the King James’ version of the Bible



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