Articles ‘a/an’, ‘the’ and no article

This page sets out important rules for the use of articles.

How can I work out the correct article?

As you write, ask yourself:

  1. Is the noun countable or uncountable?
  2. Is it specific or not clearly identified?

Countable vs uncountable nouns

To use articles correctly, you must first be able to recognise if the noun is countable (C) or uncountable (U).

Countable nouns can be plural: essay, essays; child, children

Uncountable nouns are generally singular: research, information, weather

Check if a noun is countable (C) or uncountable (U) using a dictionary.

When do I use an indefinite article – ‘a/an’?

A/an is only used with singular, countable nouns.   It refers to one example of many possibilities and does not identify an exact person or thing. For example:

I have read a book on this topic.

(i.e. one of several books, but we do not know which book)

For indefinite, uncountable nouns, either no article is used, or we use a word that describes quantity such as some, considerable, little. For example:

Water leaked through the ceiling and caused considerable damage. We had little time to clean it up.

When do I use a definite article - the?

1. Used when the reader knows which noun is being referred to because:

  • The noun has been mentioned before.

Some schools have a career counsellor. The counsellor has an important role in preparing students for work.

  • A word, phrase or clause comes before or after the noun and makes it specific. Often, this is in the combination of noun / preposition / noun or adjective / noun.

The results for October are detailed in the finance report.

(Which results? Specifically, October; which report? The finance report.

2. Used with both countable and uncountable nouns

The books (C) relating to the current research (U) are in the reading guide (C).

3. Used with unique phenomena which are easily identified.

The sun, the moon, the Vatican, the prime minister.

When do I not need an article?

We don't use an article:

  • When we refer to all members of a group. For example:

Tigers  are endangered.

  • With uncountable nouns when they refer to general concepts.

Water is essential for life.

  • Names of people, books, movies, plays (unless it is part of the title).

Avatar is a science-fiction movie.

  • Many geographical features: towns, cities, states, countries, lakes, single islands, continents, mountains.

Melbourne is in Victoria.

  • Sports, games and meals.

He plays football. I like chess. They’re serving fried chicken tonight.

Final tip

Good use of articles makes your writing more precise and easier to read. Take a few minutes each week to practice reviewing articles in texts you read to see which of the rules above apply. You can then begin to integrate them in your own writing.

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