Online College Courses for Credit

Article Usage

Article Usage

Author: Rebecca Oberg

This learning packet should review:
-What are sentence articles?
-How do articles function in a sentence?
-How to determine correct article usage.
-The difference between "the" and "a/an" (definite and indefinite articles)

This learning packet offers a look at article usage for students. Using a straightforward video clip from a teacher, a helpful collection of tips in the format of a slide show presentation, text outlining the reasons and other information behind article use in English (and the difference between American English and British English, for that matter), and a witty, well-written article from noted online grammar guru Grammar Girl, this packet pulls together the "best of the best" of online resources related to article use, presenting them in a user-friendly format for Sophia learners.

See More
Fast, Free College Credit

Developing Effective Teams

Let's Ride
*No strings attached. This college course is 100% free and is worth 1 semester credit.

37 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

299 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 33 of Sophia’s online courses. Many different colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.


13 Simple Rules for Article Usage

Follow these quick rules and examples, and be an article expert!

Source: See slide show presentation for source information.

Articles: Grammar Girl's Quick Take

A lot of people learned the rule that you put a before words that start with consonants and an before words that start with vowels, but it's actually a bit more complicated than that. For example, here's Matthew with a question:

I've been wondering if it is actually a hour or an hour. An hour sounds more correct, but a hour reads more correct. I'm just curious on what it should be.

The rule is  that you use a before words that start with a consonant sound and an before words that start with a vowel sound (1).

Should You Use a or an?

So to answer Matt's question, an hour is correct, because hour starts with a vowel sound. People seem to ask most often about words that start with the letters h and u because sometimes these words start with vowel sounds and sometimes they start with consonant sounds. For example, it is a historic monument because historic starts with an h sound, but it is an honorable fellow because honorable starts with an o sound. Similarly, it is a Utopian idea, but an unfair world.

The letters o and m can be tricky too. Usually you put  an before words that start with o, but sometimes you use a. For example, you would use a if you were to say, “She has a one-track mind,” because one-track starts with a w sound. Similarly, “She has an MBA, but chooses to work as a missionary.”

The rule is that you use a before words that start with a consonant sound and an before words that start with a vowel sound.

Other letters can also be pronounced either way. Just remember it is the sound that governs whether you use a or an, not the actual first letter of the word.

One complication is when words are pronounced differently in British and American English. For example, the word for a certain kind of plant is pronounced “erb” in American English and “herb” in British English. So the proper form in America is an erb, and the proper form in Britain is a herb. In the rare cases where this is a problem, use the form that will be expected in your country or by the majority of your readers.

A Historicor an Historic

While we’re talking about different pronunciations, let’s talk about a historic. Some Americans argue that it should be an historic, but I come down firmly on the side that says it should be a historic event. One of the most contentious interactions I had at a book signing was over this point.

Here’s my reasoning: If you have an odd accent for an American and pronounce historic as “istoric,” you can make an argument for writing an historic, but it’s a stretch since the standard American pronunciation of historic is with the h-sound: “historic.” So even if you pronounce it “istoric,” most of your readers won’t.

Definite and Indefinite Articles

Aand an are called indefinite articles. The is called a definite article. The difference is that a and an don't say anything special about the words that follow. For example, think about the sentence, “I need a horse.” You'll take any horse—just a horse will do. But if you say, “I need the horse,” then you want a specific horse. That's why the is called a definite article—you want something definite. At least that's how I remember the names.

Source:, modified by Rebecca Oberg

Articles: A Simple Explanation from One Teacher

This simple video offers a basic introduction (very sound academically) to articles, from one teacher's perspective. Though his presentation style is very basic, the information is great!

Source: YouTube

A Short Article on Articles!

For better or for worse, English is blessed with articles. This causes a considerable amount of confusion for speakers of most of the world's other languages, who seem to get on rather well without them. The good news is that English began dropping the complex case systems and grammatical genders still prevalent in other European languages a very long time ago. Now we are left with just two forms of the indefinite article (a & an) and one form of the definite article (the). Perhaps more than anything it is the transition from being a language with synthetic structure to one which is more analytic that has helped gain English the kind of unrivalled worldwide acceptance it enjoys today. 

Although greatly simplified, English article usage still poses a number of challenges to speakers of other European languages. Let's compare the German sentence "Da er Botaniker ist, liebt er die Natur" with the corresponding English one "Being a botanist, he is fond of nature". You'll see that English puts an indefinite article in front of a profession but German doesn't. Conversely, English manages without articles in front of abstract nouns like nature, where German needs a definite article. 

Even between British and American usage one finds subtle differences in nuance or emphasis. For example, Americans usually say someone is in the hospital, much as they could be at the bank or in the park. To the British this sounds like there is only one hospital in town or that the American is thinking of one hospital in particular that he or she patronizes. The Brits say an ailing person is in hospital, just as they would say a child is at school or a criminal is in prison. This is because they are thinking more of the primary activities that take place within those institutions rather than the buildings in which they are housed. If, however, you are merely visiting one of these places, you are at the hospital, at the school or at the prison — both British and Americans agree here that what we have in mind is the building itself.

These few examples serve to illustrate that there is more to articles than at first meets the eye. From whatever perspective you are viewing this page, we hope you'll discover that articles are actually precision tools that greatly contribute to the unique accuracy of expression afforded by the English language. Most article usage does in fact have a reasonably logical explanation. If this can be properly grasped then non-native English can be made a lot less conspicuous and many misunderstandings avoided.