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Articles

Articles are a unique type of adjective. Only three articles are used in English: the, a, and an. Articles always precede any other adjectives modifying the noun.

Indefinite Articles

is called the indefinite article. A refers to an unspecified or unknown thing. It can also indicate a single thing or one out of many. never refers to plural nouns.

  • Is that car 1969 Mustang?
  • My sister wants to be doctor.
  • I need to buy cookie sheet.
  • But: I need to buy two cookie sheets.

You should also repeat the when you are talking about two separate things.

  • I need to buy a cookie sheet and a jelly roll pan.

If the indefinite article precedes a noun or adjective that begins with a vowel sound, English uses the form an for ease of pronunciation

  • An exam book
  • An angry man.

The test for whether to use or an is not whether the noun begins with a vowel (a, e, i, o, and u), but whether it begins with a vowel sound or consonant sound when pronounced. Words beginning with the letter y, sometimes considered a vowel, take rather than an.

  • An honest mistake (Honest begins with a vowel sound: on-est.)
  • CIA agent (CIA begins with a consonant sound: see-eye-ay.)
  • An FBI agent (FBI begins with vowel sound: eff-bee-eye.)
  • yellow scarf, yard, yodeling contest (Yellow begins with a consonant sound: y-uh. So does yard and yodeling.)
  • UFO, university (UFO and university begin with a consonant sound: you; also known as the hard u sound.)
  • An unidentified flying object, an uncomplicated procedure (Nearly all un-words begin with the vowel sound: uh-n.)
Noun begins with a consonant soundNoun begins with a vowel sound
a birdan abacus
a caran error
a lemonan issue
a telephonean order

Gray Area: Articles and the Letter H

The letter H has a varied construction when there is a distinction between a hard h sound and a silent h sound. It used to be correct to say “an historical novel,” but the contemporary way is given in the table that follows.

Hard soundSilent sound
a historical novelan herb
a hickory nutan honest person
a horsean honor

Definite Articles

The is called the definite article. The refers to a specific or already known thing. It can refer to singular or plural nouns:

  • The three cars parked across the street belong to my neighbor.
  • The dog chased the cat up the tree.
  • The kittens are playing with the ball of string.

A/an is often used for the first mention of a thing, and the thereafter:

  • My father gave me watch. The watch belonged to my grandfather.
  • coat hung in the closet. The coat was torn and stained.

In some cases, nouns do not use articles. In general observations or statements of universal fact, no articles are needed:

  • Elephants are mammals.
  • Milk is high in calcium.
  • But: The calcium found in dairy products is easily absorbed. (A specific type of calcium.)

Articles are one of the least logical aspects of English. Why is it correct to say “read Chapter 2” but “read the second chapter,” or “I have cold” but “I have the flu”? A few general guidelines follow:

  • Most proper nouns do not need articles. (Major exceptions are names of rivers, oceans, and certain famous sites or geographical features: the Rocky Mountains, the Empire State Building, the Pacific Ocean.)
  • Most noncount or collective nouns do not need articles unless they are being used in a specific sense: “I like cheese.” (no article), but “The cheese they make in Wisconsin is my favorite.”
  • If referring to something indefinite and singular, use a/an.
  • If referring to something indefinite and plural, do not use an article.
  • If referring to something definite, whether singular or plural, use the.

Gray Area: British versus American Article Usage

There are some differences between British and American English and these differences yield some different constructions in certain cases.

BritishAmerican
going to hospitalgoing to the hospital
he is in hospitalhe is in the hospital
she is going to universityshe is going to university

This is not to say that the British always leave out articles—that would not be true. The particular cases cited above, however, apply.

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