Definite articles and indefinite articles – determiners in English

articles in English language, determinersArticles in English language, words used as determiners, are often one of the hardest things for students to master. They come before nouns, and tell us if the noun is known or unknown, the quantity, or the type of name it is. Choosing the correct determiner (indefinite article, the definite article or no article) depends on if the noun is a name, the type of object/place it names and if it is singular or plural. The following rules should help you choose:

The indefinite article

a/an – introduces what is new (an unfamiliar object), singular.

The definite article

the  – indicates we know (or will soon know) the object. Context identifies it. Used for plurals when naming a group (see below).

No article

No article – generalisations, plurals and uncountable nouns.

Specific rules for articles

Use a/an :

  • -with ‘There is’: There’s a beer in the fridge.
  • -the first time we mention something.
  • -after have/have got: Have you got a mountain bike?
  • -in naming things: It’s a rhinoceros.
  • -with occupations: I’m a teacher.

Use the:

  • when we have already mentioned the object
  • when there is only one of something: the moon.
  • in defining relative clauses: Pay the man who delivers the package.
  • with of, when something is defined by a preposition phrase also starting of: The benefits of early retirement.
  • in superlative expressions: It’s the best city in the world.
  • with particular adjectives: the first, the next, the last.

Sub-rules can contradict these though:

Use a/an    for regular use (‘every’): Forty times an hour.

Use the for leisure activities/forms of entertainment/travel (fixed expressions): Go to the cinema/pub. I play the piano (British English)

Use the for these Proper Noun categories: rivers, mountain ranges, oceans and seas, deserts, groups of islands, hotels, cinemas, political bodies, countries with political terms or plurals, newspapers (either in the name or when referring to newspapers).

Use no article: 

  • for ‘belonging to’ institutions, when someone is a part of a certain institution like hospital, church, school, prison, college, university: He’s still in hospital.
  • for meals: She went to lunch.
  • for time expressions: next year, at six o’clock
  • for work, home and bed: She left work.

Use no article for these Proper Noun categories: people, places such as villages, towns, cities, parks, streets, woods, forests.

Articles in Idioms

Idioms can simply ignore the rules, and have to be learnt individually:

  • a bit of
  • in a hurry
  • make a start
  • have a drink
  • do a turn
  • on the coast
  • in the red
  • off the record
  • through the nose
  • play the blues
  • in debt
  • on loan
  • out of action

If you have any questions about how to use articles or determiners in general in English language, please ask and I will do my best to further explain.

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