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English Definite and Indefinite Articles

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English Definite and Indefinite Articles

Unlike other languages, English has only one definite and one indefinite article. The, the English definite article, is used to refer to specific nouns. A/an, the indefinite article, modifies non-specific nouns.

The

The is used to indicate a specific or particular member of a group. For example, if you and your friends plan to see the newest James Bond movie and you want to ask if your friends would like to meet for dinner beforehand, you might say the following:

Do you want to grab dinner before the movie?

“The movie” refers to the Bond film that you and your friends plan to see.

The can also precede a singular, definitive entity. “The English Island,” for instance, is named such because the definite article indicates a specific tutoring company in Atlanta.

In order to use the, the specific noun being referred to must be understood by both the speaker and the listener. The noun must have been established earlier in the conversation, or there must be widespread agreement on what “the + generic noun” refers to. (For instance, “the government” usually refers to the federal government of the country you are located in or speaking about.)

A/An

The English indefinite article actually has two distinct forms: a and an. However, both forms have the same function: to indicate that you are speaking about any member of a group.

Would you like to go see a movie?
A movie = any movie

The English Island is an Atlanta-based tutoring company.
An Atlanta-based tutoring company = there are multiple tutoring companies in Atlanta

A vs. An

Whether you should use a or an depends on the first letter of the noun.

  • A is used for singular nouns beginning with consonants: a student, a teacher, etc.
  • A also precedes nouns that are pronounced as if they begin with consonants: user, university, etc.
  • An is used for singular nouns that begin with vowels: an apple, an orange, an elevator, etc.
  • An is also used before nouns that begin with a silent “h”: herb, hour, etc.

Additional Rules of Usage

The can only be used with noncount nouns. A/an can only be used with count nouns.

Most locations and place names do not take an article. However, rivers, points on the globe, broad geographical areas, deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas are preceded by the.

Names of nationalities and languages do not take an article unless you are referring the population of an area (the American people, the French populace, etc.).

The names of sports and academic subjects never take an article.

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