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Article usage

Article usage

Author: Ben Creagh
  1. Explain what articles are and how they function in a sentence.

  2. Explain how to determine correct article usage and the difference between “the” and “a/an” (definite and indefinite articles)

This packet should help a learner seeking to understand English grammar and who is confused about the difference between definite and indefinite articles.

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Articles: What are they, and why do we need them?

Articles (a, an, the) help clarify your meaning, and omitting an article can confuse your audience.  Articles help give classification to words and idea. They are found before nouns and help to classify what noun you are talking about.


Look at the following sentence:

A friend and helper stood nearby. 

With the addition of (a) in-between and/helper, we have a completed different meaning. 

A friend and a helper stood nearby.


Next, we'll look at how to use articles.

Source: Ben Creagh

Using a/an and the correctly

The indefinite articles a and an classify the singular nouns they precede.  Use a before a consonant sound (a yard, a university).  Use an before a vowel sound (an apple, an hour).

Here are some examples of when an indefinite article is used

With the first mention of a noun:  Use an indefinite article when you introduce a singular noun for the first time.

            I bought a writing journal for my English class.

With the expletive there:  Use an indefinite article when you introduce a topic that includes a singular noun.

            There is a good reason for practicing your English.

For a generalization:  When you are referring to a singular noun in a general way, use an indefinite article.

            A journal is a notebook for you to write in.

If a noun is plural or if it cannot be counted, no article is needed.

            Journals are useful.

            Writing is an important skill.




The definite article the can precede singular or plural nouns.  It is used for identification.

            The students in the class write in their journals daily. 

The students referred to in this sentence are indentified as specific students.  The definite article is used for identification in the following common contexts.

  For a subsequent mention:  Once a noun has been introduced, use the definite article to refer backto it.

I wrote an entry about bikes.  The entry included facts about the sizes, models, prices and styles of bikes.

For shared knowledge:  When reference is to something that is part of common knowledge, use the definite article.

                        One teacher asked her students to write about the moon.


                For abstract classes:  The is used with the noun that refers to an abstract class.

                                    The writer’s journal has become a mainstay in the composition classroom.


As you can see there a lot of uses for articles, but do not worry.  Most of the time, the article that sounds natural will be in the correct form.

Source: Glenn, Cheryl, et all. Hodges' Harbrace Handbook. Wadsworth, Massachusetts: Thomson Wadsworh, 2004.