I have often come across many students and second language speakers of English (many of whom have a high command or are almost fluent) that find it difficult to remember when to use ‘the’/’a’/’an’. Some languages (mostly Slavic) don’t have definite and indefinite articles, so it is particularly difficult for speakers of Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian etc to understand when to use the articles. I have taught many lessons on this and have found that it is necessary to understand and remember the general rules and exceptions of when to use both definite and indefinite articles.
In this post we look at when to use ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘an’ and some common mistakes students make and how to avoid them.
When do we use the definite article ‘the’?
We use the definite article ‘the’ in front of a noun when
- we think a person knows exactly what we are talking about e.g.: my bag is on the chair (I am talking to my friend, we both can see the chair in the room)
- if there is only one of something in the world e.g.:
The Pope is visiting Russia.
The moon is very bright tonight.
The Queen of England is Elizabeth II.
In all of the above sentences there is only ONE subject, there aren’t 10 popes in the world or 20 moons or 5 Queens of England at the same time
3. because there is only one in that place or in those surroundings, for example:
We live in a small village next to the church. (there is only ONE church in our village)
‘Dad, can I borrow the car?’ (our family has only one car)
This is why we use the definite article with a superlative adjective because there usually is only ONE biggest/smallest/nicest something e.g.:
He is the tallest boy in the class
It is the oldest building in the town
She is the prettiest girl on TV
That is the most expensive ring in the shop
This is the most beautiful flower in the garde
- We don’t use ‘the’ for people’s first names unless we are talking about a whole family e.g.:
The Obamas live in Washington
The Beckhams are from England
The Khans bought a new car last week
- We don’t use ‘the’ for countries like England, France, Zimbabwe, Spain or India unless a country is a group of islands or states, a kingdom or republic e.g.:
The United Kingdom
The Republic of Ireland
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
The United States of America
The Democratic Republic of Congo
The People’s Republic of China
We don’t use ‘the’ for cities like London, Paris, Tokyo except for cities/states like The Hague, The Vatican City
- When do we use the indefinite article ‘a’/’an’?
1. We use the indefinite articles ‘a’ or ‘an’ before a singular noun when we mention something for the first time in a paragraph e.g.:
We have a new student in our class. His name is Guru and he’s 19.
2. We use ‘a’ if the noun doesn’t begin with a vowel (letters a/e/i/o/u) e.g.: a book, a pen, a computer
3. We use ‘an’ if the noun begins with a vowel e.g.: an apple, an explanation, an essay
4. We also use ‘an’ if the noun begins with the letter ‘h’ which has a silentsound e.g.: an hour, an honest person
5. We use ‘a’ or ‘an’ for a singular noun which is one of many and not specific e.g.:
I found a great book in the library (there are many books in the library)
A student from our university lost his phone (there are many students in the university)