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  • Why are a, an, and the important?
  • What is an article?
  • Indefinite articles
  • Definite articles

Why are the words “a,” “an,” and “the” important?

I’m an English teacher, but I don’t think about English grammar when I hear the word articles. I think about newspaper articles or journal articles. That thought is kind of weird because I went to school for English, and one of my favorite classes was advanced grammar.

Yet, I don’t think about articles–neither indefinite nor definite.

But I should. Articles are flexible spices to the English linguistic stew. Let’s check on a few of the exciting properties of articles:

  • The words are adjectives in disguises. Remember, an adjective describes a noun.
  • Articles modify a noun.
  • The description numbers the noun.

Okay, so what is an article?

I can show you better than I can tell you. My grandma used to say that to me when I was younger. She was right, and it’s something that I teach my students in my class.

Here are examples of articles in use from killer literature! The articles are underlined. The noun is bold.

  • The old man was dreaming about the lions–The Old Man and the Sea
  • It was a pleasure to burn–Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen–1984, George Orwell

You can see how the “the” and the “a” are helpers when describing the noun.

I have to admit that I love a chance to discuss neat rules of grammar.

It’s gratifying when I work with something as interesting as articles. These three words are like the honeybee of the English hive. Without them, all life would collapse.

Hyperbole aside, articles are words that describe nouns. “A,” “an,” and “the” define nouns as specific or unspecific. We have two types of articles in the English language, indefinite and definite.

The article’s grammar rules are as follows.

The definition of indefinite articles

The indefinite articles are “a” and “an.” The two words are used when describing an unknown quantity or unstated object. The words indicate a level of uncertainty or apathy.

It’s okay to use indefinite articles when you are unsure or unconcerned about the thing we’re speaking about.

These 4 rules will help you understand when and how to use indefinite articles:

Rule #1–This rule is all about “a.” Use “a” before a word that begins with a consonant. Here are three examples of how to use the word “a”:

  • Please hand me a plate; I’m hungry.
  • Tell me a secret!
  • What’s a boy supposed to do?

Rule #2–Use “an” before a word that starts with a vowel. Here are three examples of how to use the word “an”:

  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
  • Sometimes I wish I was an eagle so I could fly.
  • I want an ice cream cone for breakfast.

Rule #3–Forget rules #1 and 2, sometimes.

Like in all things, there are exceptions to these rules. Let’s look at the word “hour” so I can show you what I mean.

Investigate the word “hour.”

  • The word “hour” begins with an “h.”
  • “H” is a consonant.
  • The “h” is not pronounced.
Even though “hour” is spelled with a consonant as the first letter, it is pronounced as if the vowel is the first letter, like  

More examples of this exception include the words honest, heir, and honor.

Now let’s flip the script and look at words that start with a vowel but are pronounced with a consonant sound.

Check out the word “European.”

  • The word “European” starts with an “E.”
  • “E” is a vowel.
  • The “E” is not pronounced, but the “r” sound is.
Even though “European” is spelled with a vowel as the first letter, it is pronounced as if the consonant is the first letter, like  

The rules apply the same for acronyms and initialisms. For example:

“a” “an”
United States policy LCD monitor
URL FBI agent
Union FAQ (this one is controversial!)

Rule #4–If you can’t count the noun, don’t use an article. An uncountable noun can never be singular, so an indefinite article is never the right choice.

Let me show you, so it won’t throw you off. Here are some examples of uncountable nouns:

  • I love music.
  • Give me milk, please.
  • Pass me wood for the fire.

Read this sentence aloud, “I love a music.” It sounds awkward, doesn’t it? That’s because music cannot be counted. It makes no sense to say “a music.”

This rule applies to words like milk, water, and wood too. The nouns can’t be counted, so it is not accurate to use an indefinite article like “a” or “an.”

The English teacher in me makes me want to do a quick check on learning. Right about now, you’re trying to decide if this article is worth finishing. I promise it is!

Let’s do a quick quiz to show you what you now know. Choose the right indefinite article for the following sentence.

It is not often that someone comes along who is (a/an) true friend and (a/an) good writer. Charlotte was both--Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

(Answer: “a” is the correct choice for both. Each of the words “true” and “good” starts with a consonant. Therefore, the right indefinite article is “a.”)

The definition of the definite article

“The” is the only definite article we have. It reigns supreme as the definite article, our one and only. Also,  
  is the most common word in English.

Speakers in English use “the” when the noun is believed to be known by both speaker and listener.

Here are the four most common rules for “the”:

Rule #1–The refers to a noun that has been mentioned already. The article is underlined. The noun is bolded.

Example: On Wednesday, a yellow canary flew away from a black cat. The bird hasn’t returned.

  • In this example, we know that “the bird” in the second sentence is the canary mentioned in the previous sentence.
  • The writer’s use of the definite article assumes that the listener knows which bird.
  • It’s not just a bird. It’s the yellow canary, the one that flew away.

Example: I ran past Starbucks when I decided to go into the coffee shop for a venti vanilla latte.

Rule #2–“The” indicates that there is only one of something.

It might be more helpful to see a few uses of “the” in action. The article is underlined. The noun is bolded.

  • She and I went on a walk down the yellow brick road.
  • Excuse me, sir, where is the bathroom?
  • Come on out to my house; we live down 1st Street across from the statue of Darth Vader.
    Note: I’m sorry, I can’t resist sharing a news article about the  
      It’s a strange intersection of history and pop culture!

Notice that each of the speaker’s use of the word “the” indicates a single something. It’s “the” “road,” “bathroom,” and “statue.” In other words, each of the nouns is a known, singular entity.

Rule #3–“The” defines or identifies a specific person or object.

Here are some examples of rule three in sentences:

  • The youngest person to climb Mount Everest was thirteen! His name is Jordan Romero.
    • Quick look: “The” refers to the specific person who climbed Mt. Everest.
  • The sun is almost about 93 million miles from Earth.
    • Quick look: “The” refers to the specific object. It’s wrong to say “a sun” because it’s the specific sun we have.
  • The king is dead; long live the king!
    • Quick look: First, wordplay is fun!
    • The first “the” refers to the specific king we had (dead).
    • The second “the” refers to the specific king (living) we have now.

Rule #4– “The” + adjectives when referring to a whole group of people.

This one is a little tricky, and as Founding Papa, Ben Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

For this following example, my goal is to teach and involve you. Here we go!

Youth is wasted on the young–George Bernard Shaw,  

Let’s take a look under the hood of this adage. So you will notice that we have “the” and “young.”

  • Typically, “young” is a descriptive adjective.
  • But, there is an unsaid noun–”people.”
  • We understand the sentence to mean that youth is wasted on the young [people of the world].
  • The way “young” functions in this sentence is the noun that specifies a group of people (rule three).
  • Since “young” is a specific noun, we use the word “the.”

In this article, you learned why “a,” “an,” and “the” are essential. We also discussed articles and defined the terms indefinite article and definite article.


As a review:

  • “a” and “an” are indefinite articles
  • “the” is the definite article
  • articles help describe and provide more information about nouns

Click here to check out our ELA Common Core Book Series for more practice.

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