Definite and indefinite articles in English grammar

Definite & indefinite articles

It is almost impossible to discuss the noun phrase without referring at some stage to the class of words known as determiners, since more often than not a noun will occur with one or more words from this grammatical class. Determiners include articles (a/an, the) and quantifiers.

Determiners consist of a relatively small number of mainly grammatical items that change very little and tend to serve only one specialised function in a sentence. Unlike verbs, nouns and adjectives as word classes, it is difficult, if not impossible, to add any new words to the class of determiners and for this reason it is called a closed set.

What kind of words make up this limited set? The most instantly recognisable is probably thearticles namely the, a/an. In addition, there are others like: that, those, every, some, several, all, much, both, no, which can occupy the space before a noun.

Articles

As we noted above, the articles are the, usually referred to as the definite article, and a/an, theindefinite article. They both constitute part of the noun phrase and usually, provided there are no other determiners present, occupy the first position in the noun phrase. Here are six examples of articles being used in conjunction with other word classes:

  • We noticed a smell.
  • We noticed a strong smell.
  • We noticed an unusually strong smell.
  • I bought the present.
  • I bought the expensive present.
  • I bought the most expensive present.

The word unusually in the third sentence begins with a vowel sound, so the a needs to change to anto allow a more natural speech flow. We have an option not to use an article in front of either plural nouns or uncountable nouns; so:

  • I’d like steak and chips.
  • He always gives way to anger.

The table below should make it clear exactly when we can use articles with certain kinds of nouns.

Articles

Singular nouns

Plural nouns

Uncountable nouns

a/an a chair
the the chair the chairs the water
no article chairs water

It’s important not to let special cases blur the general rules. For example, it is possible to talk about “a wine” meaning “a type of wine” and similarly “the wines of Chile” meaning the various types or brands of wine from Chile. We can refer to “the waters of the Ganges” because although “water” is in general an uncountable or mass noun, “the waters” has a particular meaning and usage in the context of rivers and streams.

Although there are only three options when choosing which article to use, the rules governing their use can be rather confusing for learners. The basic rules are follows:

A/an

This is used when the noun that we wish to refer to is unknown to our listener/reader or is not part of the common ground that we share. It is most often used to introduce new information.

  • I saw a UFO yesterday.
  • Tell me a story.
  • Have you ever seen a tornado?

The

By using the, we are signalling to our listener that s/he is very likely to know what we are referring to and that the context of our conversation should help them to identify this. We can use the, therefore, to

  • refer backwards to something that we have already mentioned
  • refer forwards to something that we can take for granted will happen
  • refer to our common ground or shared knowledge

Here are some examples to illustrate each of those contexts:

  • I was out the other day and I found a ten-pound note on the street. I couldn’t decide whether to keep the money or hand it in. (I have already talked about this money in the previous sentence.)
  • We’ll need to take an axe to cut the trees . (i.e. those trees that we find in the place that we are going to.)
  • Have you put the cat out? (i.e. our cat)

The is also used with certain fixed expressions where there is often common knowledge, for example places of entertainment, oceans and seas, hotels etc. the Alps, the cinema, the Pacific Ocean, the Hyatt and even for some more generic tersms such as ‘the High Street’, ‘the open seas’.

Note also that the is sometimes (but not always) used with some countries’ names, such as:

  • She lives in England, which is part of the UK.
  • He visited the Czech Republic.
  • The DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) has experienced strife for many years.
  • I think the Philippines is a beautiful country.
  • Jack loves the Netherland and works in the Hague.

In addition, when referring to some named or unnamed organizations, for example:

  • He was arrested by the FBI.
  • She works for the BBC.
  • The U.N. has its headquarters in New York.
  • He left home and joined the army.

No article

If we want to refer to something general and the nouns that we are using are either plural or uncountable, we leave out articles.

  • I really like funfairs. (‘funfairs’ in general; I have no specific funfair in mind.)
  • It’s brought us nothing but trouble. (uncountable noun)

Some of the other times when an article is not needed are:

  • with proper nouns like people’s names, countries, towns, cities, single mountains, streets, lakes, and countries (but see note above about certain countries and places).
  • meals – when are we having lunch, I have cereal for breakfast.
  • certain time expressions – next year, last month, this week, on Friday, at five o’clock.
  • in an institution – he’s in prison, I’m at school next week, do you go to university.

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