Home > Grammar > How to use “the” and “a” in English

How to use “the” and “a” in English

While studying for my Master’s degree at the University of Toronto, I remember reading that the most difficult part of English grammar for most ESL students to learn is articles (i.e. – “the” and “a/an”). My experience as an ESL teacher informs me that using articles correctly is indeed a big challenge for English learners, including Chinese ESL students. The reason for this difficulty is probably related to the fact that the rules for the use of articles are both somewhat abstract and somewhat complex. This difficulty is probably enhanced for Chinese learners by the fact that Chinese does not have articles. Personally, although I think that I can almost always figure out what an ESL learner probably means when he/she makes an article error, I do need to sometimes think briefly about the learner’s intended meaning if he/she has made an article error. In addition, mistakes with the use of “the” are, in fact, quite noticeable because “the” is the most common word in English.
First of all, I should explain the rules for the use of the articles. “The” is used before noun phrases which are definite to both the speaker as well as the listener (and definite to the writer and the reader). One would use “the” in the following example if both the speaker and the listener could see the same unique referent (i.e. – a cute dog), the identity of which would be definite to both.

e.g. 1 – “Look at the cute dog!”

Which particular dog was intended by the speaker would be clear to the person he/she was talking to, so “the” would be necessary. Because of the above use of “the”, this article is sometimes referred to as the “definite article”.
On the other hand, if the referent referred to by a noun phrase was indefinite to the listener (as well as possibly the speaker), then one would need to use “a” (see example 2 below).

e.g. 2 – “I want to get a dog.”

In the above example, the listener definitely does not know which dog the speaker wants to get and, in fact, neither does the speaker. The only thing that is clear is that the speaker wants to get one dog, but which dog is indefinite. Because of this meaning, “a” is sometimes referred to as an “indefinite article”.
English actually has two indefinite articles. The other indefinite article is “an”. “A” is used before consonant sounds while “an” is used before vowel sounds. This rule is usually crystal clear to students when the letter and the pronunciation are the same (e.g. – an apple, an orange, an umbrella, a cat, a dog, a tiger etc.). However, students typically have problems when the first letter written in a noun phrase is not the first sound pronounced. In such cases, it is only the sound that’s relevant. For example, one would say “a university” because “university” actually begins with a /y/ sound (and /y/ is a consonant). Similarly, one would say “an hour” because the letter is actually silent and this noun begins with a vowel.
Finally, one uses no article if one is referring to a generic class of items (see example 3 below):
e.g. 3 – “Dogs are cute.”

One is referring to dogs in general, rather than a specific dog or one, indefinite dog, so one cannot use any article at all.
Let’s practice, look at the following sentence and use the correct article (or no article):

1. My neighbour has ________ fat cat.
2. I think that _______ fat cats are cute.
3. Where did _______ cat go? (a definite cat)

1. a
2. no article
3. the

Categories: Grammar
  1. Anonymous
    July 22, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Thank you ! 🙂

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