The article is used to show whether the reader is expected to be able to identify which instance of the noun is referred to.
The is used when the noun is known to the reader, therefore it can be identified from a larger group of similar items. A/an or no article is used in cases when no definite identification is expected. The tables below provide some basic rules to help you choose between a, an, the, and no article.
* In the word ‘MA’, the first letter is ‘m’, which does not normally note a vowel sound. However, when pronounced, the word ‘MA’ actually begins with an ‘e’ sound. For this category of words, an is used as for words starting with a vowel sound.
**In the word ‘university’, the first letter is ‘u’, which normally notes a vowel sound; however, when pronounced, it makes more of a ‘y’ sound (different from ‘u’ in umbrella, for example). For this category of words, a is used as for words starting with a consonant sound.
Read the words aloud to establish if they begin with a vowel sound.
Check pronunciation in a dictionary if not sure.
Try to increase your sensitivity to what kind of ideas might be uncountable nouns.
The article attaches to the noun, but is not always next to the noun.
Numbers, adjectives and adverb-adjective pairs also attach to the noun, but go between the article and the noun:
If other determiners, such as this, that, his, hers, my, John’s, some are used, no other article is needed.
►Demonstrative adjectives (words used to replace specific things or people that are known to the reader)
►►Possessive adjectives (words showing possession)
The basic skill of recognising nouns – those words that represent things– is essential here. A dictionary can help if you are unsure!
The example below shows concrete and abstract nouns and their use of a/an, the or no article. Nouns are in bold; articles are shown in italic, and no article is indicated with _.
You could use a similar technique to rigorously check for articles whilst proof reading your work.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
British Council: Brief explanation of English articles followed by short quizzes
Language and Learning Online (Monash University): More advanced tutorials on the use of articles, with practice
English for Uni (University of Adelaide): Detailed explanation of articles in video story and web format as well as practical activities
Advanced use of the definite article--some exceptions (University of Toronto)
To download a PDF version of the Article checklist, click the link below.