Article Usage In English
The Usage Of Indefinite Articles “A” And “An”
- “A” and “An” stand for an indefinite noun, referring to any singular entity of a particular group. For example, “The kid needs a toy.” This refers to any toy without pinpointing a particular toy. “Somebody call a policeman!” This refers to any policeman. “When I was at the zoo, I saw an elephant!” Here, we’re talking about a single, non-specific elephant, out of perhaps several elephants at the zoo.
- The usage of “A” or “An” depends upon the beginning sound of word that it is placed before. For example,
“A” is used before a singular noun beginning with a consonant e.g. a toy, a bike, a pen, a doll etc. “An” is used for a singular noun beginning with a vowel e.g. an apple, an egg, an idiot, an orphan etc.
“A” and “An” are subject to the following exception in spoken and written English.
- “A” can also stand before a singular noun beginning with a vowel if the pronunciation of the word is such that it sounds like it begins with a consonant. For e.g., a user. Here, the word sounds like ‘yoo-zer,’ i.e. it starts with a vowel ‘u’ but sounds like it starts with the consonant ‘y’ so ‘a’ is used. Similar is the case with a university, a unicycle, a universal fact, etc. “An” is also used when the word that follows starts with a silent “h” e.g. an hour, an honest man, etc. However, if “h” is pronounced as “h”, then “a” is used like a horse, a house, etc.
- Same rules are applicable for acronyms as well. Acronyms that start with vowels or vowel-like sounds appear with ‘an’, while those that either start with consonants or consonant-like sounds, take on the article ‘a’. For example, An ICaP memo generally discusses issues concerning English 106 instructors. A UFO was seen hovering about the White House yesterday.
- Indefinite articles are also used to indicate membership in a group. For Example, I am a teacher. Brian is an Irishman. Seiko is a practicing Buddhist.
Definite Article “The”
Definite article can be used before singular and plural nouns depending upon the uniqueness and specificity of a particular noun. For example,
- “The dog that bit him ran away.” Here, the statement refers to a specific dog that bit ‘him’. Since it is not just an indefinite dog, ‘the’ is used.
- “I was delighted when I saw the policeman who saved my life!” Here, also the statement refers to a particular policeman hence a definite article.
- “The earth revolves around the sun”. Here, sun and earth are unique and well-defined objects/nouns hence definite article ‘the’ is used.
Countable & Uncountable Nouns
- Definite article “the” can be used with countable as well as uncountable nouns. For example,
- “I love to sail over the Indian Ocean” (or any specific body of water). “He spilled the milk all over the floor” – it indicates some specific milk; may be the milk you had at home. “He spilled milk all over the floor” indicates any milk that might have been spilled. “The washing machine has been at the mechanic’s for over a week now”. (Singular and specific nouns also call for definite articles)
- “A” and “An” can be used only with countable singular nouns. For example,
- “Give me a glass of water.” “I want a bottle of milk.” “She is an angry person.” “Give me an answer and I will let you go.”
Geographical Use Of “The”
There are certain specific rules which must be followed while using articles in spoken and written English.
Never Use ‘The’ Before
- Names of countries/territories: Italy, Mexico, Bolivia, India, etc. However, if the name suggests that the country is an amalgamation of various small independent states, then ‘the’ can be used. For e.g., the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the United States, etc.
- Names of cities, towns or states: Seoul, Manitoba, Miami
- Names of streets: Washington Blvd., Main St., etc.
- Names of lakes and bays: Lake Titicaca, Lake Erie except with a group of lakes like the Great Lakes.
- Names of mountains: Mount Everest, Mount Fuji except with ranges of mountains like ‘the Andes’ or ‘the Rockies’.
- Names of continents (Asia, Europe)
- Names of islands (Easter Island, Maui, Key West) with exception to island chains like ‘the Aleutians’, ‘the Hebrides’ or ‘the Canary Islands’.
‘The’ Must Be Used Before
- Names of rivers, oceans and seas e.g. the Nile, the Pacific, etc.
- Points on the globe e.g. the Equator, the North Pole, etc.
- Geographical areas e.g. the Middle East, the West, etc.
- Deserts forests, gulfs, and peninsulas e.g. the Sahara, the Persian Gulf, the Black Forest, the Iberian Peninsula, etc.
- Specific and unique nouns like earth, sun, moon, etc.
Some More Specifications
- Do not use articles before names of languages e.g. Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian but when you are referring to the population of the nation you must use “The” e.g. “The Spanish are known for their warm hospitality.”
- Do not use articles before names of sports e.g. volleyball, hockey, baseball. You can say ‘a baseball game’.
- Articles are never used when referring to the names of academic subjects e.g. mathematics, biology, history, computer science.
- While using “Such”, “What” and “How” as an exclamation with singular nouns, “A” or “An” is used. For e.g., “Such a beautiful girl!” or “What a joke!”.
- With the word “Many”, “A” or “An” is often used to depict the multitude or countlessness of objects e.g. Many a boy is absent today.
Many rules govern the usage of articles and the optimum understanding of all these is a must to having a well-honed and error-free language. Hope this article shed some light on article usage for you.