About articles 1

Articles - the + a/an - can be annoying things. To start with, many languages simply don't have them, so articles just seem like an unnecessary complication. Or ... your home language does have articles, but uses them in different ways. And anyway, English being the rather disorganised language that it is, there are few rules about articles - and many more exceptions than rules !

So how can we get a grip on how the English articles work?

Generic ... definite ... indefinite

We use articles (or don't use articles) in front of a noun to show how general or particular the noun is, in a given statement. For instance :-

Cars are vehicles.

> GENERIC - if we don't use an article, we understand that we are not talking about any particular car, but rather the whole general class or category described as 'car' (but notice the plural, here)

The car is in the garage.

> DEFINITE - using 'the' shows that we are talking about a particular one, that you and I both know about.

A car drove past me.

> INDEFINITE - using 'a/an' indicates that we are talking about one that is not specific or particular, and that we don't know anything much about it ... it's just an example.

Are we clear about the three main ideas here - 'generic' + 'definite' + 'indefinite' ? Remember the three basic example sentences ... and have a look at this diagram :-


... it's not as simple as that! Each of these three main concepts can be expressed in different ways:-

the Generic idea can be expressed in two different ways:


1. no article + plural - as in the example 'Cars are vehicles'


2. 'the' + singular - as in 'The car is economically important'

you can use 'the' to show the Definite idea if :


1. the noun has already been mentioned, so the reader knows which one we're talking about


(e.g. 'While I was waiting, a car and two lorries passed by. The car was red, and ...')


2. the noun hasn't been mentioned before, but you immediately give information to show which you mean


(e.g. 'The car that passed while I was waiting at the bus-stop was red, and ...')

you don't use 'a' to express the Indefinite idea of examples which are not particular if :


1. you use plural examples - like 'cars'


(e.g. 'Cars cause many accidents.')


2. the example that use are using is uncountable - a quantity :


(e.g. 'Petrol is the commonest fuel for cars.')

This may already be beginning to look complicated, but it isn't really. You should really learn all of the above rules, but you will get most of the article-choices right most of the time if you remember :-

** When generalising - either plural ('cars') or singular + 'the' ... it doesn't usually matter, so you choose.

** When referring to a particular or definite thing - does the reader / listener know which one you're talking about? (It's always better to give too much information than too little!)

** When referring to a non-specific or indefinite example - you don't use 'a/an' with plurals or uncountable nouns.


Here are links to some exercises. The point about practising through exercises is that making the right choice of grammar should become automatic - in the same way as practising a musical instrument helps you to use it easily and freely.

The exercises in the following pages are online - you can do the exercise and then check the answers.

Articles 1a Basic

This exercise practises the basic understanding of the Generic / Definite / Indefinite ideas.

Articles 1b Mixed

This exercise has examples which include the Generic / Definite / Indefinite distinction in the same sentence. You have to choose which is the correct one for each of the gaps.

Articles 1c Correct or incorrect?

This extract from a student's essay has many examples of the articles in use - but some are correctly used and others are not. You have to recognise which is right and which is wrong.

qBank resources

Articles ... review of articles in action in a range of different contexts


For teachers...

* This page has basically been written as a student access page, for individual students to study on their own, but ...

* ... it can certainly be used as a projection to support the teaching of these rules to a whole class. Note that it has been laid out so that it fits conveniently if you use the whole-screen 'Enter presentation mode' button at the top

* After presenting the basic rules, you can practise them with the whole class by projecting the exercises available in the pages listed just above this box.

*  Finally, follow-up drilling can be achieved by using the qBank, which has a mass of relevant question items. Note that these can also be printed out in handout form.

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