For some of us, article usage is as simple as spelling “cat” and even those new to the English language can quickly grasp this seemingly simple concept. Yet, articles can be a bit confusing at times. Which one do I use? Why?
In a nutshell, articles include only 3 words: a, an, and the. These 3 articles are used before a noun (person, place or thing) and whichever is used depends on the specificity of the noun.Take the following phrase(s):
I am going to pick up an order.
I am going to pick up the order.
Same sentence, different article. How/why do the two phrases mean different things?
- In the first phrase, the speaker is picking up a non-specific order. It could be any order.
- In the second phrase, the speaker is picking up a specific order.
Hence, the is used before a specific, countable singular or plural noun. A and an are used before general, non-specified and singular nouns. Here’s an example, this time with a instead of an:
I need a pencil.
I need the pencil(s).
A and an are both placed before non-specified, singular nouns. But, when is one used instead of the other?
A is used before nouns starting with a consonant (i.e.: C,P,K,L,M,B,V). It is also used when a noun has a “U” that sounds like a Y.
- A car
- A road
- A union
- A yacht
An is used before nouns starting with a vowel sound or a soft H sound.
- An oval
- An imprint
- An hour
If a noun has an adjective modifying it, then the article comes before the adjective:
- The red car
- A red car
- An orange car
For exceptions and special cases:
- For the phrases “some of, ”“all of, ” and “most of” that come before a plural (or uncountable) noun, the is placed between the phrase and noun:
I used up all of the money.
Only some of the students showed up.
I studied most of the time.
- Some nouns are uncountable and cannot have a or an before them. Examples include things such as water, time, and happiness. Instead, the, some, or even no word at all can be placed before:
I need some love.
Give me the water.
The process needs time.
- Some nouns, depending on the context, can be countable or uncountable. And thus, a or an may be used:
I hear a noise.
I hear noise.
- Plural, countable nouns and words that are used as general terms (people, plants, happiness, etc.) do not always require the article before. Whether it does depends on the intended meaning, or specificity, of the word:
People like to have freedom.
The people like to have freedom.
The second phrase refers to a specific group of people, rather than people in general.
We are always pursuing happiness.
We are always pursuing the happiness that’s right for us.
The second phrase refers to a specific kind of happiness, as opposed to general happiness.
Do not use articles in front of languages or nationalities, unless you’re referring to the people of that country:
I like Spanish.
I like the Spanish.
The first sentence refers to the language while the second refers to Spanish people.
Sports and academic subjects also do not require an article before them:
I play baseball.
I enjoy chemistry.