Today we cover the basic rules of using articles in English as well as the more advanced and less known cases of English articles. All the rules and exceptions come with example sentences. Just like English prepositions, articles are essential for a good IELTS/CAE score. At the end of this entry you can take a test to check your knowledge of this tricky aspect of English Grammar. The test can be taken online, printed or downloaded as PDF.
1. Basic Rules
– The Definite Article
– The Indefinite Article
– Zero/No Article
2. Advanced Cases
– The Definite Article
– The Indefinite Article
– Zero/ No Article
3. Articles in Phrases
4. Brief Summary
The first ground rule of English articles is simple – a noun in the singular form normally takes either a definite (the) or an indefinite (a/an) article. This sounds obvious and quite simple, but you have no idea how often ESL students forget about it. Knowing and using this basic rule would make their speech and writing much cleaner and more coherent.
Okay then, so how do we know which article should be used? Below is a set of basic, well-known rules. As a CAE or IELTS taker you must be familiar with them already, but it never hurts to go over them one more time.
The Definite Article
- The most common case when we use the definite article is referring to something that had been mentioned previously:
Remember the car we talked about yesterday? Jim has just bought it!
I saw a dog chasing some cats down the alley. The dog had no collar on.
- Use the definite article when it’s from context what exact thing or person you talk about or when you specify to make it clear:
The building over there is about two hundred years old!
The woman who you met at the office yesterday is my wife.
The Indefinite Article
- We use the indefinite article when we mention something for the first time. However, if we talk about the same thing or person again, it should take the definite article:
Yesterday I saw a man and a woman shopping together. The man bought a hat and the woman bought a dress. Both the dress and the hat seemed inexpensive, but stylish.
- The indefinite article is used when we don’t want to or don’t have to be specific. In terms of meaning, it can be substituted by ‘any’:
I am going to move out from my parents so I’m currently looking for an apartment.
You should buy a bicycle to make your commute more pleasant.
- Use the indefinite article to mean ‘one’:
Let’s have a beer or two tonight!
Add a pinch of salt to your salad if you feel that it’s taste is too bland.
- No article is normally required when referring to uncountable nouns (unless you mean to point out some certain object):
Excessive consumption of sugar can be bad for your health.
I don’t really drink coffee anymore
A cup of coffee; A glass of milk; A bucket full of sand.
Here the article refers to the nouns ‘cup’, ‘glass’ and ‘bucket’.
The sugar that you ordered has arrived.
Here we are talking some particular sugar.
- No article is needed with proper names (obviously):
John and George are twin brothers.
We didn’t know that Nathan has divorced recently.
(also, see Case #3 in the indefinite article section)
Naturally there are certain exceptions from those rules. They are illustrated in the next section of this entry.
The definite articles usually implies a certain object. For instance, if you say “The car is parked just around the corner”, then a question arises “What car?”. If you are unable to answer this question, then you probably don’t need the definite article.
If you still do not know which article should be used in any given situation, you can substitute it for a personal pronoun. It is not a good practice, but it works grammar-wise.
Other Cases of Article Usage
This section covers the more advanced aspects of articles in English: individual cases, exceptions and much more. Don’t forget that basic rules can be applied to most of them where appropriate (e.g. play the piano BUT buy a piano) If you don’t feel like reading through the whole thing, just go to summary for the shorter version of it.
The Definite Article
- Geographical names. Probably the most sizeable part of English articles grammar.
– Names of seas, oceans and rivers (BUT not lakes):
The Black Sea; The Mediterranean; The Pacific Ocean; The Danube (BUT Lake Victoria)- Groups of mountains (BUT not individual mountains or peaks):
The Rockies, The Pyrenees, The Himalayas (BUT Ararat, Denali, Mount Elbert)- Names of countries that imply plurality:
The United Kingdom, The USA, The Netherlands, The Czech Republic (and also The Congo, The Gambia, The Lebanon)
– Unique geographical features:
The Channel, The Antarctic
– Compass points and geographical areas:
She lives in the North; There is some trouble in the Middle East; The West strongly opposes the proposed changes.
- Nations and groups of people:
The Americans, The Brazilians; The Christians, The Republicans
However, with institutions and people who work there the situation is the opposite (the police – force; police – people)
- Unique objects and positions (titles):
The moon orbits the earth; The President gave a speech about the current political climate; She is the CEO of our company; The ozone layer is growing thin; The Winter War was a conflict between Russia and Finland; The past; The future; The countryside;
- Names of newspapers:
The Guardian, The Sun, The Sunday Times
BUT names of magazines normally take no article, even if there is no word ‘magazine’ in the title:
Time Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Glamour
- To emphasise the meaning, to make it stronger or more convincing. In speech, additional intonational stress is put on the definite article:
Disneyland is the place to go if you want to spend a great weekend with your kids.
Charles is the man for the job – he knows all ins and outs of this business.
- ‘… of …’ structures:
The University of Manchester; The Tower of London; The Cape of Good Hope
However, if we do not use ‘… of …’ structure, then zero article rule should be used:
Manchester University; Cape Cod;
- Musical instruments:
I wish I could play the piano. My father used to play the guitar a lot when he was younger.
- Classes of species:
The tiger is one of the biggest cats in existence. The hippo is the most dangerous animal to humans.
The Indefinite Article
- Jobs, occupations and vocations:
My father is a doctor
She is training to become an electrician
- To talk about rates or measuring:
$8 a kilo; 60 miles an hour; twice a week
- To emphasise that you do not know the person:
A Mr Hopkins dropped by yesterday and aksed to give this note to you.
- In a set phrase with ‘many a …’, which means ‘a great deal of, a large number of something or someone’:
Many a politician became corrupt; Many a man were killed in that war.
- Schools, Prisons, Universities, Hospitals, Churches and all other institutions when we talk about their function.
I’m not coming to school today – I think I’ve got the flu.
He’s going to spend five years in prison for an armed robbery.However, if we mean the building and not the function, we use the definite article:
I couldn’t park at the church so I had to circle around the block for twenty minutes.
I’m going to the prison to visit uncle Joey.
- Illnesses, diseases and other medical conditions:
Last year he was diagnosed with cancer; Arthritis can be very difficult to live with
There are some exceptions, most notable are the flu and the measles.
- Names of streets, roads and avenues:
Go down Hastings street, turn left at the next intersection.However, -way words (highway, expressway etc) can be used with the definite article:
The motorway goes all the way to the North of the country; I’m on the highway to hell
Articles in Phrases
A collection of rules for articles in set phrases and expressions, without any grouping.
- In the morning/afternoon/evening, BUT At night
- Few – not enough of something, less than the desirable amount:
Few people came to my birthday
A few – some, a small amount (without the meaning of ‘not enough’)
I had a few people over at my place last Sunday.
- Most – making the generalisation to say ‘the majority, more than half’:
Most people don’t know how to drive a car with a manual transmission.
The most – talking about something specific in a superlative way:
Richard is the most capable worker on the floor.
- Use the Definite Article to talk about something you and your speaker knows about, something you clarify or describe, something that is unique, something that denotes a group or implies plurality (the democrats, the USA), any body of water (but not lakes), names of newspapers (but not magazines), musical instruments, for emphasis.
- Use the Indefinite Article when you talk about no particular thing or it doesn’t matter which thing you mean, to mean ‘one’, to talk about professions, rates (five days a week).
- No article is normally used with proper names, institutions (schools, prisons, hospitals (unless you mean the building, then use ‘the’), ilnesses (except for the flu and the measles)
It is important to understand that articles are there to help your listener or reader to better understand you. Articles make the language more cohesive – that is, they connect words within a phrase, a sentence, even a paragraph. If your native language doesn’t use articles, it will be difficult to use them properly at first, but as you grow more experienced and expose yourself to more spoken and written English, you become more proficient at using them.
Don’t be scared by all the rules and exceptions of English articles. Make sure to learn the basics and then slowly study the finer points of their usage. Learning everything at once can be overwhelming, and frankly speaking you don’t need to know ALL the rules to have good command of the language. It is however going to do you a world of good, especially in your Writing part of the exam.