Articles: Basic Rules

An article is a functional word which we use with a noun to show its definiteness or indefiniteness. There are 2 types of articles in English: indefinite (a/an) and definite (the). The term zero article refers to occasions when there is no article preceding a noun (or a noun phrase). Here is basic information about how to use articles with different kinds of noun:

Noun Article Example
countable singular a / an My friend has a car.
countable singular the The black car is his car.
countable plural the The cars are in the car park.
countable plural zero article We use cars to get somewhere.
uncountable singular the The sugar is in the sugar bowl.
uncountable singular zero article Sugar is not expensive.

THE MAIN USES OF ARTICLES:

Meaning A / An The Zero article
specific Sally has a dog. She walks the dog. She likes dogs.
general A dog is a loyal animal. The domestic dog is a member of the genus Canis. Dogs were not sacred animals in ancient Egypt but cats were.
the listener/reader doesn’t know which person/thing exactly There is a dog with a ball.
the listener/reader knows which exactly The dog which I see is a Dalmatian.

THE MAIN USES OF A/AN:

The use Examples
something hasn’t been mentioned before There is a book on the shelf.
any one of a group of things or people in general She wants to be a doctor.
all things of the same kind A snake is a reptile.
words expressing an amount I am a little tired.
words expressing frequency I drink coffee two times a day.
two things which are often mentioned together as though they are one thing I need a cup and saucer.
a type of a particular thing This creamery produces a fine cheese.
somebody’s name when the person is a stranger There is a Mr. Jones waiting for you in the hall.
after what, such, and rather to emphasize what we are saying She is such a good person.

What a beautiful day!

He’s rather a nice man.

THE MAIN USES OF THE:

The use Examples
somebody or something you have already mentioned There are two candies – the chocolate one is in my pocket and the caramel is on the table.
something unique in some way This song is the best for me.

The moon and the sun are my inspiration. (BUT This planet has a small moon – there are other suns and moons int he universe)

something specific + of / which The notebook which I am holding is your present.

The capital of Great Britain is London.

something restricted to a particular case The popularity enjoyed by pop stars wasn’t that interesting for him.
the names of some countries (usually federations, republics (“collective”)  and “plural” countries) The Netherlands and the Czech Republic have signed an agreement.

The USA has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council.

The Russian Federation is commonly known as Russia.

mountain ranges/chains The Alps are a popular tourist destination.
names of canals, rivers, seas and oceans The Nile is the longest river on Earth.

The Panama [ˌpænə’mɑː] Canal divides the national territory from north-west to south-east and is 80 km long.

The city of Mariupol is located on the coast of the Sea of Azov.

The Pacific Ocean occupies a central place in the lives of the people of the Pacific Islands.

somebody who we visit regularly I am going to see the doctor tomorrow.
the name of a whole group (if these are clearly plural) / family The Johnsons live here.

The Beatles are a legend. (BUT Pink Floyd are a legend too)

The Social Democrats are popular in the country now.

something well-known because it is a part of everyday life or nature I always have breakfast in the morning.
parts of the body He kissed her on the lips.
an adjective which is used as a noun to refer to a whole group / nationality The British consume much tea.

(Single examples are not formed in the same way: a Frenchman/woman, an Englishman/woman)

It’s the area where the poor live.

dates (in speech) She was born on the second of January (January 2 in writing).
a type of entertainment Let’s go to the theatre/theater (American English).
somebody in the official position (these tend to be “unique”) The Pope is going to visit this church.

The director of studies has come.

(BUT if the title has a description coming after the noun, the is more likely, but not essential: She became President in 1999. She became (the) President of India in 1999.)

THE ZERO ARTICLE (ZERO DETERMINER) IS USED BEFORE:

Zero article use Examples
the plural form of a countable noun which is used in a general sense read books a lot.
an uncountable noun which is used in a general sense I like pop music.
names of languages I am learning English.

BUT

I am learning the English language.

an adjective if it is not followed by a noun It is beautiful.
airports / train stations Heathrow is a huge airport.

Shinjuku Station is a major railway station in Tokyo.

universities She’s always dreamed to study at Oxford University.

BUT

She’s always dreamed to study at the University of Oxford.

shops/restaurants named after people / banks He works at McDonald’s.

Let’s go to Brown’s Restaurant.

Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Limited is the largest bank in the world.

churches / cathedrals St. Paul’s Cathedral is definitely worth seeing.
meals I always have lunch in the same café.

BUT

I decided to have a good lunch at the most famous inn in the region.

diseases / illnesses Flu can be very dangerous (generally speaking).

(the/a can also be used): She has come down with the flu.

We think it’s a flu or something.

streets / roads She lives in Fifth Avenue.

Route 66 runs directly beneath that building.

mountain peaks Mount Everest is the highest peak of the world.
continents Africa is sometimes called Dark Continent.
most countries / states They live in Alabama.

Australia occupies a whole continent.

lakes Lake Baikal is the deepest on the planet.
a school / college / prison / church when not focusing on any particular one Their children go to school.

Then how could he enter college?

I must now go to church.

I don’t want to go to prison.
hospitals / universities etc. when talking about the purpose of the institution, not the building He’s in hospital now but he’ll be getting better soon.

Women occupy many more part-time student spaces at university.

a way of travelling I like to travel by bus.
+ common phrases like at home, at work, in bed She likes to spend time at home.

He is at work now.

She is in bad with a cold.

Are you ready for some more information on articles? Check out our post on intermediate-advanced rules about English articles.

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I’d stay in bed all day!