You’ll remember from your elementary school days that articles help a writer tell the reader whether they are talking about something general (“tell me about a superhero”) or something specific (“tell me about the superhero with the most anger issues”). Good writing will make use of both kinds of articles, and good revisions will make the writing clear—whether it is talking about a general topic or a specific idea.
The articles “a” and “an” pick out general, single objects. We call them indefinite articles, because they don’t pick out any definite, specific object. You want an apple, to pick up a math test, to watch a movie, to read a graphic novel. None of those objects are specific, and none of those contain more than one object. They are general.
But “the” is the definite article, because it always picks out something definite and specific. You want the granny smith apple, to pick up the math test your teacher left for you, to watch the movie that just came out, to read the graphic novel the library is holding for you. Each of these uses of the definite article pick out a particular item that is being used—and can be used for plural nouns. (I can just as easily say that you want the apples, the math tests, the movies, and the graphic novels.)
Revisions for the Indefinite Article
The indefinite articles a/an are used for unspecific, generic nouns. “A” is used whenever the word it is refers to begins with a consonant sound: a textbook, a charger, a university. (‘University’ starts with a vowel, but the sound is like “yun”, which is not a vowel, so you need to use the “a” as the indefinite article.) “An” is used whenever the subject it refers to begins with a vowel sound: an excellence award, an achievement, an element, an embassy.
It’s important to remember that indefinite articles can only be used with objects that can be counted—and which only have one object. Easy examples include: a concept, a thing, a person, a problem. More difficult examples are those that are one set of things, that might have more than one member within the set, including: an organization, a university, a group, a value. For these, just ask yourself if you are talking about one thing, even if that thing has different members within it. Compare these more difficult examples to an easy one—a family. A family is one unit that is made up of multiple parts. If it is one unit, it receives an indefinite, singular article.
When choosing a revision for the SHSAT questions, it is also perfectly acceptable to use an indefinite article when you first see the subject in the sentence, and then use “the” to refer to the subject throughout the rest of the passage. For example:
Gustavo always dreamed about going on a safari. The trip would take him to places he had only ever seen in books, and it would be the best experience of his life.
Something happens to Gustavo in this passage. He starts with a generic idea—a safari—and so the writer uses an indefinite article to explain the idea. But, then, the idea becomes more specific and particular the more the writer tells about Gustavo’s experience. The idea no longer is just a safari, but it takes him to individual places where Gustavo can see things he has read about. Even more, the safari will become the best experience in Gustavo’s life. When you choose revisions for your answers, remember to follow the path that the passage takes you!
Revisions for the Definite Article
The definite article ‘the’ is used for specific objects, and for one or more objects, and is used when the writer is pointing out a particular object. When you are revising for the SHSAT, use the definite article when the writer is speaking about someone or something she is already familiar with or has identified in the passage.
For countable nouns, you can use the definite article to pick out a single object among others:
Ms. Dear is the best algebra teacher in the school.
In this sentence, Ms. Dear is a single person, who is picked out in the sentence for being the best. There is not confusion in this writing, because “the best” only means “one”, and Ms. Dear is that one.
For plural nouns, you can use the definite article to pick out a specific group of objects:
All of the algebra teachers at our school are excellent, but Ms. Dear is the best.
In this sentence, algebra teachers is a countable noun that has more than one members in its group. The writer is clear that there are number of algebra teachers, that all of them are good, but that Ms. Dear is the best among them.
There are some nouns that can’t be counted. “Advice” is a good example. “Advice” is guidance that is given to you by others, usually for something in the future. But, you can’t count “advice”—it’s not something that can be counted. But it is something that can be given the definite article. For example:
The advice that Ms. Dear gave me about applying to college really helped me.
In this sentence, “advice” is not countable, but it is very specific—it refers only to particular advice (good advice, about applying to college) that a particular person (Ms. Dear) gave to a particular audience (the writer). Due to its specificity, “advice” will be used with the definite article.
“The” is also used to pick out proper nouns: buildings (the Empire State Building); parts of the country (the South); museums (the Metropolitan Museum of Art); deserts (the Sahara); oceans (the Atlantic); and even events in history (the Dark Ages). But, it can also be used with plural proper nouns, like the Great Lakes, and with proper nouns that use “of”, like the United States of America and the City University of New York.
Revisions When You Can’t Use an Article
Zero articles occur when you can’t use either an indefinite or a definite article and still have clear, concise meaning in your sentence. Be on the lookout for generic references that don’t need an article, and steer clear of revision samples that use articles when there shouldn’t be one used. The rule is that if a noun is countable and not specific, use a or an (like for a fun time or an event in Central Park). When the noun is countable or is plural (like for the birthday party, or for the ArgoPrep study tools), you will use the. But… for instances when you have a countable, plural noun (like groups of youth, or values of the school) you won’t use an article at all. You also won’t use an article when you are revising about ideas. You wouldn’t, for example, talk about “an evidence”, “the patience”, or “a cooperation”. Here are some guidelines for revising without articles:
- Don’t use an article when there is a generic noun that you can’t count.
Example: Mr. Bump assigned us homework to help us prep for the physics test.
- Don’t use an article when you have a generic, plural noun that is countable.
Example: Dunder Mifflin started selling printers and copiers when they merged with Sabre.