Handout Topic: Articles

What is an article?

There are two types of articles in the English language: the indefinite article a or an and the definite article the. Articles are one specific class of determiners. Determiners always immediately precede nouns, and thus act as useful markers indicating the presence of a noun. Besides the articles, other examples of determiners include: some, many, one, my, their, this, and these.

A noun is considered indefinite if neither the reader nor the writer has a specific noun in mind. A noun is considered definite if the writer and reader both know which specific noun is being referred to. The definite article can therefore be used anytime: the writer has used the noun previously; the writer identifies the noun immediately before or after using it (usually with an adjective or clause); or the noun is unique.

e.g. A dog ran across the street at rush hour today. The dog was not injured, but it caused a small traffic jam. (noun has been mentioned previously)
e.g. My 1993 Toyota Corolla was the best car I ever owned. (noun is identified as a particular kind: “best”)
e.g. I’m going to check the weather. (weather is unique)

The three main types of nouns (for the purpose of using articles) are proper nouns, count nouns, and non-count nouns. Proper nouns always start with a capital letter and name a person, place or thing. Count nouns are nouns that can be counted, and can therefore take on a plural form. Non-count nouns are not normally countable in English, and do not have a plural form.

e.g. March, Mount Saint Vincent, Toyota, Halifax, Fred. (proper nouns)
e.g. apple, bicycle, umbrella, woman. (count nouns)
e.g. wine, snow, information, fear, work, meat. (non-count nouns)

Proper nouns never appear with an indefinite article (a or an). The does not usually precede proper nouns either, but in certain cases (the names of oceans, rivers, mountain ranges, regions, and some countries) it can be used correctly.

e.g. The Middle East is an area of concern for the United States, said the president.

For a singular count noun, a or an is used if the noun is indefinite. For all plural count nouns and non-count nouns, no article is used if the noun is indefinite. For singular count nouns, plural count nouns, and non-count nouns, the article the is used if the noun is definite. The table below summarizes the use of articles with different noun types.

Noun type Definite Indefinite
Singular count a or an the
Plural count No article the
Non-count No article the

Some types of nouns NEVER take articles. These include the names of languages (e.g. English, French, Portugese); the names of sports (baseball, hockey, soccer); and the names of academic subjects (e.g. mathematics, history).