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The Definite and Indefinite Article in English–How to Use Them


The definite article in English is the word the. The indefinite article is a or an. We use an before a word beginning with a vowel sound, and a at all other times. The rules for when these words are used may be different in your language than in English. Today I talk about the rules of how these articles are used in English. I give you many example sentences as well. The download at the end will give you additional practice in using the, a, and an correctly.

Using the indefinite article a or an

The indefinite article a or an means one. Therefore it is only used with singular, countable nouns. We use an before a word or adjective beginning with a vowel (a,e,i,o,or u–and sometimes y) sound. For example, we say, an elephant, an apple, an old man. Be careful, however. We say an hour. The word hour begins with a consonant, but the h is silent. The first sound we hear in the word hour is a vowel sound. We also do not day an university. We say a university. The word university begins with a vowel, but the sound we hear is y. It is as if we are saying yuniversity.  Use the word a in front of a sound or adjective beginning with a consonant sound. For example, we a cat, a friend, a large umbrella. The words a and an have the same meaning.

Rules for using the indefinite article.

Below are rules and example sentences for using the indefinite article.

  1. Use the indefinite article when you are not specifying a person or thing. I met a friend . We do not know which friend you met. You probably have several friends. I work in a hospital . Again, you are not telling us which hospital.
  2. Use a or an when you talk about things in general. An elephant is very large . A dog is bigger than a mouse .
  3. We use the indefinite article to describe people. He is a professor . My cousin is a famous athlete .

Using the definite article

The definite article in English is the. When it comes before a word with a vowel sound, it is pronounced thee. For example, we write, ” I  have the office on the third floor, ” but we say,” I have thee office on the third floor.” Before a consonant sound we say the.

Rules for using the definite article.

Below are rules and example sentences using the definite article.

1. Use the definite article when you are talking about something specific.

Did you see the movie playing at the new theater?  In this sentence you are talking about a specific movie at a specific theater.

I love the dress you are wearing 

We didn’t see the teacher yesterday 

2. Use the word the with non-count nouns.

I don’t have the energy to go to a party tonight 

Don’t drink the water when you travel to Thailand 

3. We use the definite article when we refer to specific, plural countable nouns.

My sister bought the sweaters with the blue trim 

4. Use the to talk about nationalities,  groups of people, or institutions.

The French love their wines 

Most people in Asia belong to the Buddhist faith

I called the police when I heard noises in my house at night 

Sometimes we don’t use articles at all

Sometimes, in English, we don’t use any articles. Below are some rules and example sentences.

1. We don’t use any articles when we talk about things in general using either non-count or plural nouns.

Love is beautiful 

Cats love to sleep 

Rice is my favorite food 

I don’t have time to help you today   Note–It is also correct to say I don’t have the time to help you today.

2. We do not use articles when we talk about countries, states, cities, or other geographical locations.

She lives in Argentina

I am hoping to visit Mount McKinley in Alaska 

Mixing the definite and the indefinite article.

We use the indefinite article when we mention something for the first time. This is because no one knows anything about it, because we have never mentioned it before. The second and all other times we use the definite article. this is because now everyone knows what we hare talking about. Below are some example sentences.

I bought my mother a birthday present . ( We don’t know which present you bought). The present was a silver bracelet . (Now we know specifically the present was, We don’t know, however which silver bracelet you bought. It could be any one.) The bracelet fit my mother perfectly, and she loved it . (Now we know which bracelet we are talking about. It is the one you bought.)

Using the definite or indefinite article can change the meaning of the sentence.

The meaning of a sentence can change, depending on which article you use.

He bought a house with a big backyard . In this sentence he could have bought any house with a big backyard. There are many of them. We don’t know which house he actually bought.

He bought the house with the big backyard . In this sentence, you know about all the houses he has looked at. All have small backyards, but one has a big backyard. This is the house that he bought.

You now know the difference between the definite and the indefinite article. The definite article, the, is used for to talk about specific people or things. The indefinite article, a or an is used when you are not being specific. You could be talking about any person or thing. In a conversation, when we mention something for the first time, we use the indefinite article. After that we use the definite article. Meanings may change, depending on which article you use.  Finally, there are times when you use no article at all. The download will give you additional practice using both types of articles.

You can download the practice sheet now!

Idioms of the Day

  1. a drop in the bucket   –This means that you have a little bit, but you need much more. I need to buy a new car. My parents gave me $100, but that’s just a drop in the bucket. I need much more money than that.
  2. in between a rock and a hard place   –This means that you are in a difficult situation, and every alternative is bad. I am not making enough money at my job. If  pay the rent, I can’t pay my insurance bill. If I pay the insurance bill, I can’t pay the rent. I’m between a rock and a hard place.


Related Lesson: Linking Words in English



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