Indefinite and Definite Articles in English

English has two types of articles: the indefinite article, and the definite article. The indefinite article is a / an, and the definite article is the. We use these articles (or no article) before nouns, and the article we choose depends on the type of noun (singular / plural / countable / uncountable) and the pronunciation of the noun.

For more information, see our page on English nouns.

The indefinite article

We use a / an before singular countable nouns, when we mention them for the first time.

I live in a small town.
Take an umbrella when you go out – it's raining.

We also use the indefinite article to talk about our jobs.

She's a teacher.
She's an architect.

Pronunciation rule

When the noun begins with a consonant sound, the indefinite article is "a".

a teacher
a bag
a school

When the noun begins with a vowel sound, the indefinite article is "an". You can pronounce it as /an/ or you can pronounce the /a/ sound as /uh/.

an apple
an engineer

Be careful: some words that start with the letter "e" or "u" are pronounced /ju/, so you need "an" before:

a Euro
a European country
a university

With some words that start with "h", the "h" is silent, so you need "an" before:

an hour
an honest person
an honour

But

a hotel
a hot day

Grammar rules

1. Singular, countable nouns must have an article. This can be the indefinite article, the definite article, or another determiner (possessive, demonstrative etc).

2. Uncountable nouns cannot have an indefinite article.
"Information" (not "an information"), "money" (not "a money") etc.

The definite article

We can use "the" before all nouns: singular or plural countable, and uncountable.

We use "the" when we talk about something for the second time, or when we talk about unique or specific things.

1. Talking about something for the second time

"I live in a small town. The town is near a large city."

2. Talking about specific things

"I like getting presents." (general)
"The presents I received for my birthday were fantastic." (Specific presents – the presents for my birthday.)

3. Talking about unique things

Some things in the world are unique, and we use "the":

The sun
The earth
The moon

"Can you see the moon tonight?"
"The sun is millions of miles away from the earth."
"I like looking at the stars."

Countries

We use "the" when the country is plural.

"The People's Republic of China" (more than one people)
"The Philippines" (more than one island)
"The United Kingdom" (more than one country)
"The United States of America" (more than one state)

For other countries, we don't use an article.

France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Canada, etc.

Zero article

We have no article with plural countable nouns when we talk about general things.

"Cats are beautiful animals." (cats in general)

"British people are often polite." (British people in general)

We have no article with uncountable nouns when we talk about them in general.

"Tea is good for you." (all tea in general)

"Petrol is expensive." (all petrol in general)

But when we talk about specific examples, we use "the".

Cats are beautiful animals. The cats who live next door are Siamese. (only the cats next door – not all cats.)

English people are often polite. The English people I know are very reserved. (only the English people I know – not all English people.)

Tea is good for you. The tea I drink is high-quality.

Petrol is expensive. The petrol in Italy costs more than the petrol in Germany.

Common errors

1. You only need one article or determiner before a noun.
"My sister" (correct) "The my sister" (incorrect)
"My friend" (correct) "A my friend" (incorrect)

You don't need an article if you already have an adjective.
Green tea is good for you. (correct)
The green tea is good for you. (incorrect)

2. You can't put an indefinite article before an uncountable noun
"I'd like some information please." (correct)
"I'd like an information please." (incorrect)

If you want to say "one" (i.e. one advice) you can say "a piece of".
"I'd like a piece of advice." (correct)
"I'd like some advice." (correct)
"I'd like one advice." (incorrect)

Remember: you can use the definite article before uncountable nouns to talk about something for the second time, or a specific thing.
"I'd like some information. The information I need is about bus tickets." (talking about information for the second time)

"The information they gave me was very useful." (specific information)

For more information on how to use articles, including information on articles with sports, musical instruments, illnesses, rivers, mountains and seas; see our grammar page.

Articles exercise

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