Use of Articles: ‘A’, ‘An’ or ‘The’?

Articles can be confusing. ‘A’ doctor or ‘the’ doctor? ‘The’ eraser or ‘an’ eraser? Don’t worry… the rules are pretty simple!

Indefinite Articles

• ‘A’ and ‘An’ are the indefinite articles. They refer to something not specifically known to the person you are communicating with.
• ‘A’ and ‘An’ are used before nouns that introduce something or someone you have not mentioned before:

“I saw an elephant this morning”
“I ate a banana for lunch”

• ‘A’ and ‘An’ are also used when talking about your profession:
“I am an English teacher”
“I am a builder”

• You use ‘a’ when the noun you are referring to begins with a consonant. For example, “a city”, “a factory”, and “a hotel”.
• You use ‘an’ when the noun you are referring to begins with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u): “an apple”, “an identity” and “an opportunity”.

Take a look at the following sentences.
(1) “Looking into the night sky, Adrian thought he saw a UFO”
(2) “Emily’s flight will be delayed by an hour”

In the first sentence (1), we have a UFO (an alien from outer space). UFO begins with the letter ‘U’, a vowel.
But why does this object take the article ‘a’ and not ‘an’?

The answer is simple. When spoken, we pronounce this vowel with the consonant sound /j/ (or “yuh”). So, ‘UFO’ actually begins with the same sound as that found at the beginning of ‘yellow’.

In the second sentence (2), we have a similar situation. Although ‘hour’ begins with a consonant, when spoken, we actually pronounce this ‘h’ as the long vowel /aʊ/ (or “ow”). This is the sound found in words such as ‘power’, ‘flower’ and ‘shower’.

Now, what about ‘the’?

‘The’ Definite Article

• We use the definite article when we know that the listener is familiar with the particular person or ‘thing’ we are talking about:
“The apple you ate was rotten.”
“Did you lock the car?”

• We should also use ‘the’ when we have already mentioned the ‘thing’ we are talking about:
“She’s got two children; a girl and a boy. The girl is eight and the boy is fourteen”

• Finally, we use the to talk about geographical points on the globe:
The Great Wall of China, The Atlantic Ocean

Remember these basics and turn your English from a ‘zero’ to ‘hero’!