Articles in English play a very important role. English articles hold text together — if we take articles out of a text it will fall apart. To know how to use articles in English is essential for both speaking and writing. This entry is an attempt to clarify the basic rules for definite and indefinite articles. Just like English prepositions, articles are essential for a good IELTS/CAE score.
When to use “a”
The main purpose of indefinite article “a” is for something mentioned for the first time:
I saw a girl on my way home.
Use “a” when it isn’t important which particular object you are talking about or when that object is unknown to you:
I need to buy a car. (Some kind of car, the make or model of the car doesn’t matter)
We decided to go to a party. (No particular party, just any party)
There is a man waiting for you outside (You don’t know that man)
“A” is used for jobs and occupations:
I am a doctor. She is a lawyer. He is an electrician.
We are engineers (Don’t forget that you don’t use indefinite article with nouns in plural form)
When to use “the”
The primary function of definite article “the” is to refer to an object that has already been mentioned:
I saw a car driving past. The car was blue and looked brand-new.
The first sentence introduced that car for the first time. Second sentence used the word car with the definite article to refer to that particular car.
“The” is used when talking about nations in plural:
The Americans, The Brazilians, The Saudi Arabians.
Same rule applies to other groups of people:
The Christians, the Republicans, the Beatles.
If we talk about individuals, then we have to use an indefinite article:
An Irishman, an American, a Russian, a Turk.
“The” is used with geographical locations and names:
Oceans, gulfs: The Mediterranean, The Atlantic, The Persian Gulf
Rivers: the Thames, the Mississippi (note that lakes take no article)
Groups of islands and mountains: The Bahamas, The Rocky Mountains
Countries that imply plurality: the UK, the USA, the Netherlands
You should use “the” with unique objects (both material and abstract), if there is no such other thing:
The Sun, the Moon, the Earth (These are the planets of our Solar System, called by their proper names (thus capitalized). There are other moons and suns out there in space, but when we say “the Sun” we mean that star in the centre of the Solar System).
The South Pole is a very cold place.
The Stone Age has ended long time ago.
“The” goes with superlative adjectives:
This is the best song in the world.
Michael Jordan is the most talented basketball player.
Ordinal numbers (first, second, 25th) are used with “the”:
On the first day of Christmas we went to visit our relatives.
The Independence Day is celebrated on the 4th of July.
When no article is used
One major rule you should remember is not to use articles with proper names (John, Mary, New York, China)
Uncountable nouns are usually without any article (unless you mean to point out some exact object):
There is a lot of snow on the street.
The sugar that you ordered has arrived. (some specific sugar as it is pointed out in this sentence)
- Unsure which article you need? Use a possessive pronoun. My teacher, his friend. Sometimes this is a better choice because it makes clear what you mean.
- Definite article 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 questions, then you probably don’t need a definite article.