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English

Articles in English are a way of defining what we are talking about in a way that is specific (the dog) or general (an ice cream).

What is an Article?

Look at the examples given below and see if you notice a pattern:

  • The dog would not let go of the stick.
  • Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a c astle.
  • The Ritz is a place of luxury that the wealthy frequently visit.

In each example given it is clear that articles always preface (come before) a noun. .

A noun is a naming word (person, animal, thing, place, name, action), typically the subject of a verb.

With this information in mind, what is an article?

Determiners

An article is a type of determiner . These are words placed before a noun to establish 'who' or 'what' the noun is referring to. There are four types of determiners in English. Note that all the examples given are placed before a noun:

  1. Articles: a, an, the
  2. Possessives: my, your, his, hers, their, our ...
  3. Demonstrative: this, those, that ...
  4. Quantifiers: many, some, few, most ...

However, the focus here will be on exploring the types of articles and how to use them correctly according to the rules of English grammar.

Articles

An article is a word class that comes before a noun and shows whether that noun is specific or non-specific.

  • There are three articles in the English language: a, an, and the .
  • The English language has two types of articles: definite and indefinite .

What is the Definite Article?

The definite article is the word 'the'. This article specifies that the noun being discussed is limited to one particular thing. Here is an example:

" The lorry drove away."

'The' acts as an indication that the speaker is referring to a specific lorry that drove away, not just any lorry.

If the speaker was referring to any lorry, they would use the indefinite article 'a'.

Definite articles can occur before singular or plural nouns. To say 'The lorries drove away' would also be grammatically correct.

The definite article is used when the speaker has already made the subject (noun) clear to the listener.

In a bottle of water. Can you grab the one in the fridge?

When the subject is first mentioned, the speaker uses the indefinite article. Now that the subject has been made clear to the listener, the speaker uses the definite article to refer to the subject.

What is the Indefinite Article?

There are two words that are classed as indefinite articles - ' a' and ' an' . They are used to refer to nouns that are non-specific, being mentioned for the first time, and other instances. 'A' is placed before nouns beginning with a consonant sound, and 'an' is placed before nouns beginning with a vowel sound. Here are examples of both:

" A cat followed me home."

The speaker is referring to 'a' cat, so the indication is that this is the first time this cat is being mentioned, and that it has no personal specific connection to the speaker.

"There is an apple on the table."

The speaker is referring to an apple likely because it has not been mentioned before and therefore has no specific importance.

'An' is being used before the noun instead of 'a' because the noun - 'apple' - begins with a vowel and not a consonant . In the previous example, if an elephant had followed the speaker home the sentence would read:

" An elephant followed me home."

Indefinite articles only occur before singular nouns. To say 'An elephants followed me home', would be grammatically incorrect.

When do we use the indefinite article?

There are cases in which articles are used before nouns that begin with a consonant and not a vowel. For example:

An hour after I arrived a house fell down.

The first article, 'an', comes before the noun 'hour' despite it beginning with a consonant. This is because the word 'hour' ( / ˈaʊə / ) starts with a vowel sound , / ˈa / .

The second article is 'a' not 'an' because the word 'house' ( / haʊs / ) begins with a consonant sound - / ha / .

"He is a Ukrainian man."

The article that comes before 'Ukrainian' is 'a' and not 'an' because 'Ukrainian' ( / juːˈkreɪnjən / ) begins with the consonant sound / ju / .

Articles and Abbreviations

Sometimes, the use of 'a' or 'an' will depend on the pronunciation of an abbreviated phrase. Compare this sentence which uses an abbreviated phrase to the following sentence which uses the full phrase:

"I saw a UFO outside!"

When the phrase is abbreviated, we use 'a' because 'UFO' here begins with a consonant sound - / ju / .

"I saw an unidentified flying object outside!"

When the phrase is unabbreviated, we use 'an' because 'unidentified' ( / ʌn aɪˈdentɪfaɪd / ) begins with the vowel sound - / ʌ/ .

Therefore, it is important to know how a noun is pronounced before deciding which indefinite article to use.

Articles: Adjectives

Occasionally, an article will come before an adjective not a noun. For example:

  • Definite Article:

The tall man looked over the crowd.

  • Indefinite Article:

She is looking at an elegant lady.

It is a horrible painting.

In these cases, both the article and the adjective 'modify' the nouns. In other words, they give contextual information about the noun they are prefacing.

Articles: Capitalization

Capitalizing the Noun

The noun following a definite or indefinite article is capitalized depending on whether it is a proper noun or a common noun. For example:

The President must do his job no matter the personal cost.

Here, 'P' is capitalized because the noun refers to a specific name for a person. This is very different to:

A president must do his job no matter the personal cost.

In this case, 'president' is a generic role that is not specific to a particular person. Therefore, the 'p' is not capitalized.

To know whether to capitalize the noun that an article is modifying, recognise the difference between proper and common nouns:

Proper nounsCommon nouns
Refer to specific people: Barack Obama, Marilyn Monroe, Beyoncé Refer to generic people: firemen, councillors, children
Refer to specific places: Budapest, Ghana, IslingtonRefer to generic places: city centre, cinema, school
Refer to specific ideas / concepts / time periods: Christianity, Marxism, RenaissanceRefer to generic ideas / concepts / time periods: sexism, religion, noughties
Refer to specific food: Pizza Express, Ben & Jerry's, Milky WayRefer to generic food: bananas, carbohydrates, pizza

Capitalizing the article

When the definite article is included in the title, the first letter of 'the' is also capitalized. 'The Avengers', 'The Handmaid's Tale', 'The Jungle Book' are all titles with capitalized definite articles.

For names such as The Daily Mail, The New York Jets, The Bible, The Beatles etc., whether or not the definite article is capitalized is up for debate amongst style guides. You can choose whether or not to capitalize the first letter of the definite article depending on your preference.

Articles - Key takeaways

  • An article is a word class that comes before a noun and shows whether that noun is specific or non-specific.
  • An article is a type of determiner , a word placed before a noun which establish who or what the noun is referring to.
  • There are three articles in the English language: a, an, and the.
  • The English language has two main types of articles: definite and indefinite .
  • The noun following a definite or indefinite article is capitalized depending on whether it is a proper noun or a common noun.

Articles

An article is a word class that comes before a noun and shows whether that noun is specific or non-specific.

In the sentence 'The lazy dog eats his bone' 'The' is the article prefacing the noun 'dog'.

Definite articles and Indefinite articles.

Final Articles Quiz

Question

Which of these words are articles?

Show answer

Answer

The

Show question

Question

Is the article a definite or indefinite article?:


Mary had the television on mute.

Show answer

Answer

'The' is a definite article.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks: An article always modifies a ____.

Show answer

Answer

Noun.

Show question

Question

Which type of article specifies that the noun being discussed is limited to one particular thing. 

Show answer

Answer

The definite article - 'The'.

Show question

Question

Which type of article only comes before single nouns?

Show answer

Answer

The indefinite article only comes before single nouns.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks: __ is placed before nouns beginning with a consonant, and ___ is placed before nouns beginning with a vowel.   

Show answer

Answer

'A' is placed before nouns beginning with a consonant, and 'an' is placed before nouns beginning with a vowel.   

Show question

Question

Which indefinite article should be used here and why?:


I just saw __ unicorn outside!

Show answer

Answer

'A' because unicorn begins with a consonant sound - / ju /
 

Show question

Question

Which indefinite article should be used here and why?:


You will likely need __ X-ray to examine the broken bone.

Show answer

Answer

'An' because X-ray begins with a vowel sound - /eks/

Show question

Question

Correct the use of articles in this sentence:


I read an novel recently called 'the Handmaid's Tale'.

Show answer

Answer

I read novel recently called 'The Handmaid's Tale'.

Show question

Question

What determines whether the definite article is capitalised or not?

Show answer

Answer

Whether the noun it modifies is a proper noun or a common noun.

Show question

Question

True or False: There are two articles in the English language: proper and common.

Show answer

Answer

False - There are two types of articles in the English language: definite and indefinite. 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks: By modifying the noun, an article provides _________ __________ about the noun it is prefacing.

Show answer

Answer

contextual information

Show question

Question

True or False: Which definite article you use depends on whether the noun begins with a vowel or consonant sound.

Show answer

Answer

False - Which indefinite article you use depends on whether the noun begins with a vowel or consonant sound.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks: 

The ________ article is used when the speaker has made the subject (noun) clear to the listener.


Show answer

Answer

definite

Show question

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