Making Sense of Articles

Articles (the and a/an) come before nouns to indicate whether they are singular, plural, specific, or general. In some cases, a noun requires no article.

Using the Definite Article "the"

The comes before singular or plural nouns whose identity is clear to the reader.

Use "the" when Example
The noun is unique. the Earth, the Internet, the automotive industry, the sky
Your reader already knows which noun you are talking about because you have just mentioned it. I witnessed an accident yesterday. The accident involved a bus and a car.
You have provided information to let your reader know that you are talking about one specific noun. The book that I need to buy for Statistics 369 costs $95.
The context of a situation makes it clear what noun you mean. My cell phone broke when it fell on the sidewalk.
Referring to a class as a whole (especially animals, musical instruments, and inventions). The computer is a transformative invention that has changed our primary methods of communication.
Using superlative adjectives. Mary received the highest mark in the class.

Using the Indefinite Article "a"/"an"

"A" or "an" come before singular nouns used generally or indefinitely (they could refer to any single member of a group).

Use "a" or "an" Example
Before singular count nouns used in a non-specific way.  I want to go to the bookstore to buy a new magazine.
When describing a concept or idea. Religion is a guiding principle in her life.

"A" comes before nouns that begin with consonant sounds (e.g., I went to a concert last week.). "An" comes before nouns that begin with vowel sounds (e.g., I was hungry during my meeting, so I ate an orange.).

Situations that Require No Article

No article Example
When you mean all or in general (especially when the noun is plural). Politicians frequently mislead voters.
Before non-count nouns. The recipe called for sugar, flour, and eggs.

Choosing Articles

Use these questions to help determine what article, if any, you should use:

Questions Yes No
1. Is the noun unique? Is it the only one in the world? Use "the" Go to question 2
2. Does your audience already know which noun you are talking about because you have mentioned that noun already? Use "the" Go to question 3
3. Have you provided extra or specific information to let your audience know which or what kind of noun you are talking about? Use "the" Go to question 4
4. Is the noun a concept or an idea? (e.g. knowledge and religion) No article Go to question 5
5. Can you count the noun? Use "a" or "an" No article

Plurals: If your noun is plural, no article is needed unless your audience already knows which noun you are referring to or you have provided extra or specific information, then usethe

Practice

Do these nouns need an article? If so, should it be specific or general?

  1. ___ doctor was late for my appointment.
  2. Many ___ birds migrate in the winter.
  3. ___ love is all you need.
  4. I already ate ___ apple today.