Articles

In this lesson you’ll learn how the articles a and the and other words or the absence of any of these words are used to communicate whether nouns are general or particular and if they are particular, whether they are identified by the listener.

Diagram: The Articles Pyramid

Video Lessons

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Articles I - When And When Not To Use Articles

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Articles II - When To Use A And The

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Articles III - Words Used Instead of A And The

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Articles IV - Articles In Names

Lesson: Articles = Quantifiers + Determiners

Articles are the words a and the, but these are just the two most often used of two other kinds of words – quantifiers and determiners. A is the most often used quantifier and the is the most often used determiner.

This will be more interesting to you if you already know that you need to put something in front of nouns if they are particular/concrete/tangible/real. We usually start understanding this by saying that this something is either a or the. But actually that something can be any quantifier or determiner – any quantifier or determiner in front of nouns will mean that the nouns are particular/concrete/tangible/real – it isn’t only a and the that do this.

If you understand this, you shouldn’t be confused and wondering – “why isn’t there an article?” – when you see or want to use nouns that you know are particular/concrete/tangible/real without articles but with a quantifier or determiner instead.

Sorry, it’s complicated, I know, but God made it that way. 🙂

Quantifiers

Meaning

Quantifiers give nouns quantities (amounts, numbers). They are used to say that:

  • the noun is particular/concrete/tangible/real (vs. general/abstract/imaginary/the idea of something), and
  • that the listener does NOT know and can’t figure out which one or ones they are talking about – they are in other words random instances or examples of the noun – one or some of any.

Types Of Quantifiers

There are two types of qunatifiers – quantifiers that give exact quantities to nouns and others, unexact quantities. A gives an exact quantity – 1.

Exact quantifiers (examples):

* a (=1), 1, 14, 88, 1933…

Nonexact quantifiers (examples)

* some, a few, a lot of, many…

Determiners

Meaning

Speakers use determiners to tell listeners:

  • the noun is particular/concrete/tangible/real (vs. general/abstract/imaginary/the idea of something), and
  • the listener know which one or ones the speaker is talking about, or at least can figure out which one or ones he’s talking about – well enough

Types

Besides the, there are two other types of determiners. We call these demonstrative adjectives and possessive adjectives.

The demonstrative adjectives (all of them):

* this, that, these those

The possessive adjectives:

* my, your, his/her/its, our, their + Bob’s, Sally’s, Gary’s…..

Lesson: How & How Not To Use Articles

The Mistake English Learners Make

Articles are the words “a” and “the”, though there are a few types of words that have similar meanings that you can use instead of articles. The main problems are not using them when you need to, and using “the” when you should use “a”.

Wrong Ways And Right Ways To Use Articles

“We went to park in forest. Park was beautiful.” -> “We went to A park in THE forest.” THE park was beautiful.”
“I read THE book yesterday.” -> “I read A book yesterday.”

What To Understand To Avoid These Mistakes

The best way is to understand when we have to use articles or words like them and after that, which articles or words like them we need to use.

We need articles or words like them when talking about particular instead of general things, meaning particular instances or examples of things instead of the general ideas of them.

Then, when talking about a particular thing or things, we have to use one or another type of article or word like articles depending on whether the listener knows, can figure out, or is being told in the same sentence which thing or things we’re talking about.

If the listener knows which, we use a determiner, including “the”, and if they don’t, quantifiers, including “a”.

Practical advice

Watch your writing and speech for nouns in the singular without articles or article like words – without a determiner or quantifier, in other words. These will usually need one of these since general nouns, the only that you can use without determiners or quantifiers, are always in the plural, except for uncountable nouns. Uncountable nouns are the only that can be singular and without an article or article like word, and then, only when being talked about in general.

Lesson: Articles Q & A

The following was given by one of our instructors in response to a question asked by a user on quora.com. 

Question

Do Russians lack definite articles since they forget to use “the” a lot of times when they speak English?

Russians don’t forget to use them, they just do not really understand how to use them properly. Because as it was already mentioned here, there are no articles in the Russian language.

Here are some examples of how weird it is for us to grasp the rules:

Why do you say the Middle East, but Central Asia (zero article)? Both are modified by an adjective and could be understood as a specific place on the map, and even though it is just Central Asia and not the Central Asia.

Why did people use to say the Ukraine before and now they call it just Ukraine? I heard a theory that it is so because it was a part of Russia before and now Ukraine is an independent state. But why then… (see n.3).

… why do you say Siberia, but not the Siberia, even if it is a part of Russia?
Why do you say like ‘Germany has a population of 82.5 million’, but on the other hand ‘The population of Germany is 82.5 million’? There is one and only population in Germany, and it is specified by a particular number, but it is still a population in the first sentence.

I could extend the list even more. The answer ‘there are rules which must be memorized’ is not acceptable, because we sometimes just do not understand the logic.

Answer

I’ve been teaching this concept for many years to Russian, Baltic, and Polish speakers, and have a system worked out that basically always works, because, I think it reflects the essential truth of the situation, and will answer Pavel’s questions.

There are two separations you have to learn to make between types of NOUNS. The first is between general/imaginary/idea/category nouns and particular/concrete/real/actual nouns, and the second between nouns that are defined an undefined to the listener. The first separation will tell you if you should use an article or not at all, and the second will tell you which article you should use: A or THE.

We don’t use articles for general nouns. For example, “Trees have leaves” or “Cars have wheels” or “Happiness is fleeting”. Trees, leaves, cars, wheels, and happiness are all given without articles because they refer to categories things, the ideas of types of things, types of things in general rather than particular instances of things, examples, cases, real ones, etc. of those nouns.

On the other hand non-general particular concrete nouns need articles – you can’t talk about a particular concrete noun without using an article. If I want to talk about “a particular car that is parked in the parking lot near the apartment I’m living in”, for example, I need to call the car A car, the parking lot THE parking lot, and the apartment THE apartment. These are all real things, so they need articles. Why the ones given though? Why A before car, THE before parking lot, and THE before flat? We use THE when a real thing is DEFINED to the listener, meaning that they have at least SOME context that lets them understand WHICH ONE(S) of something a speaker is talking about. The LISTENER – context to the listener.

And we use A for everything else – when there’s no context to the listener. It was A car because it was just some random car to you that you had no previous context for. If I were to mention it again in the same conversation, I would then call it THE car because I would have already mentioned it and this would have given you context enabling you to understand somehow WHICH ONE(S) I meant.

Let’s think about the apartment next. This is defined to you because I defined it (gave you context for understanding WHICH ONE) it was in the same sentence “that I live in”. The parking lot is similarly given context (defined) by “near the apartment that I live in”. If we were going to get deeper into this topic, we would want to think about the main ways that listeners can have context that enables and necessitates the use of THE, an intuitive way for understanding A, and words with essentially the same meanings as A and THE that can be used instead of them and communicate the same meanings that a noun is either general or particular and defined and undefined. But that’s for another day (or for you to learn about on my website.

For now, let’s answer Pavel’s questions using these principles. 1) The Middle East and Central Asia. – Well, ok, I didn’t mention, but it’s pretty clear I think to most people that names USUALLY don’t have articles. We wouldn’t say THE Pavel, right? The interesting question is when they have articles, why? Why is it the US, the UK, the Netherlands, the Ukraine and just Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Brazil, etc? We use articles in names when they are made up of multiple words that have their own meanings and aren’t just sounds we use for names, like Pavel. What does Pavel mean? What does ASIA mean? But EAST means something. MIDDLE means something. By the way this East is a particular concrete place on this earth, so if we think about our first separation from our rules above, we need some article. Next, considering that we also have the word Middle in the name, is it just some random Middle East of many possible Middle Easts or do these two words together give us enough context to understand which East place it is? Obviously yes, so since it is particular and defined it is THE. The United States – real states, defined by the word United. The United Kingdom – a real kingdom, defined again by United. The Netherlands – real lands defined by the first part of the word, Nether, which means lower. The Ukraine – means borderlands – real lands, defined by border. Regarding Central Asia, Asia is just a name. Narrowing it down to Central, doesn’t require an article. We need articles for things, and never for names. Eastern Kentucky, Middle England, Lower Saxony, etc follow this same principle. 2) the Ukraine – see treatment in 1). 3) Siberia, just a name without any independent meaning – see 1). 4) A population because it is a real population, but at the moment it is introduced it is just one of many possible populations, with no prior context – if it is mentioned again, it will be as THE population. The population of Germany on the other hand is defined in the same sentence by “of Germany”. Hope this helps. You can find more like this on my website https://rapidenglish.eu.

Exercise: A, The, or No Article?

  1. I don’t usually watch                           old movies, but a friend convinced me to watch                           old Italian one, and I liked it a lot.                           story was great.

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    – / an / the

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  2. To really understand                           country when you travel, meet and talk with                           people there.

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    a / the

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  3. Marius is                           lawyer. He works in                           Vilnius for                           international consulting firm.

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    a / – / an

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  4. Henry likes playing                           board games. His favorite is                           chess. He plays at least once                           day. He is                           pretty good player.

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    – / – / a / a

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  5. I won’t be at                           home or in                           bed very early tonight because I have                           exams tomorrow and will be at                           library all night studying. Maybe I’ll even eat                           breakfast out.

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    – / – / – / the / –

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  6. What is                           country you’re from called again?                                   Czech Republic. It’s in                           center of Europe, next to                           Germany, which itself is next to                           Netherlands.                           airport there has sometimes satirically been referred to as Franz Kafka airport.

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    the / The / the / – / The / The

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  7. I have two laptops.                           older one is                           PC made by                           Asus, and                           newer one is                           Mac. I use both                           PC and                           Mac at                           home, but mostly                           Mac at                           work.

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    The / a / – / the / a / the / the / – / the / –

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Exercises: A, The or No Article? Hemingway Excerpt

  1. In _____ late summer of that year we lived in _____ house in _____ village that looked across _____ river and _____ plain to _____ mountains.

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    In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.

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  2. In _____ bed of _____ river there were _____ pebbles and _____ boulders, dry and white in _____ sun, and _____ water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in _____ channels.

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    In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.

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  3. _____ troops went by _____ house and down _____ road and _____ dust they raised powdered _____ leaves of _____ trees.

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    Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.

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  4. _____ trunks of _____ trees too were dusty and _____ leaves fell early that year and we saw _____ troops marching along _____ road and _____ dust rising and _____ leaves, stirred by _____ breeze, falling and _____ soldiers marching and afterward  _____ road bare and white except for _____ leaves.

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    The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward  the road bare and white except for the leaves.

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  5. _____ plain was rich with _____ crops; there were many orchards of _____ fruit trees and beyond _____ plain _____ mountains were brown and bare.

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    The plain was rich with crops; there were many orchards of fruit trees and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare.

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  6. There was fighting in _____ mountains and at _____ night we could see _____ flashes from _____ artillery. In _____ dark it was like _____ summer lightning, but _____ nights were cool and there was not _____ feeling of _____ storm coming.

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    There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.

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  7. Sometimes in _____ dark we heard _____ troops marching under _____ window and_____ guns going past pulled by _____ motor-tractors.

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    Sometimes in the dark we heard the troops marching under the window and guns going past pulled by motor-tractors.

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  8. There was much traffic at _____ night and many mules on _____ roads with _____ boxes of ammunition on each side of their pack-saddles and _____ gray motor trucks that carried _____ men, and _____ other trucks with _____ loads covered with canvas that moved slower in _____ traffic.

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    There was much traffic at night and many mules on the roads with boxes of ammunition on each side of their pack-saddles and gray motor trucks that carried men, and other trucks with loads covered with canvas that moved slower in the traffic.

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  9. There were big guns too that passed in _____ day drawn by tractors, _____ long barrels of _____ guns covered with green branches and green leafy branches and vines laid over _____ tractors.

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    There were big guns too that passed in the day drawn by tractors, the long barrels of the guns covered with green branches and green leafy branches and vines laid over the tractors.

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  10. To _____ north we could look across _____ valley and see _____ forest of chestnut trees and behind it another mountain on this side of _____ river.

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    To the north we could look across a valley and see a forest of chestnut trees and behind it another mountain on this side of the river.

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  11. There was fighting for that mountain too, but it was not successful, and in _____ fall when _____ rains came _____ leaves all fell from _____ chestnut trees and _____ branches were bare and _____ trunks black with rain.

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    There was fighting for that mountain too, but it was not successful, and in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain.

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  12. _____ vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all _____ country wet and brown and dead with _____ autumn.

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    The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with the autumn.

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  13. There were mists over _____ river and clouds on _____ mountain and _____ trucks splashed mud on _____ road and _____ troops were muddy and wet in their capes; their rifles were wet and under their capes _____ two leather cartridge-boxes on _____ front of _____ belts, gray leather boxes heavy with _____ packs of clips of thin, long 6.5 mm. cartridges, bulged forward under _____ capes so that _____ men, passing on _____ road, marched as though they were six months gone with child.

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    There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain and the trucks splashed mud on the road and the troops were muddy and wet in their capes; their rifles were wet and under their capes the two leather cartridge-boxes on the front of the belts, gray leather boxes heavy with the packs of clips of thin, long 6.5 mm. cartridges, bulged forward under the capes so that the men, passing on the road, marched as though they were six months gone with child.

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  14. There were _____ small gray motor cars that passed going very fast; usually there was _____ officer on _____ seat with _____ driver and more officers in _____ back seat.

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    There were small gray motor cars that passed going very fast; usually there was an officer on the seat with the driver and more officers in the back seat.

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  15. They splashed more mud than _____ camions even and if one of _____ officers in _____ back was very small and sitting between two generals, he himself so small that you could not see his face but only _____ top of his cap.

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    They splashed more mud than the camions even and if one of the officers in the back was very small and sitting between two generals, he himself so small that you could not see his face but only the top of his cap.

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