When to use articles before nouns

When to Use Articles Before NounsOne area of English grammar that many international researchers struggle with when they are writing papers is the proper use of articles.

What are articles in English grammar?

In English, articles are the little words that we put in front of nouns: “the,” “a,” or “an.”

While seemingly unimportant, proofreading your work with a view toward correcting errors in your use of “the” and “a” or “an” can make a difference in the clarity of your writing. In many cases, it gives the reader information, such as if it’s something that’s been previously introduced or if you are referring to something abstract or general or something identifiable and specific.


“The” is used before a noun that can be clearly identified by readers; it is called a definite article. “The” is also used before most plural proper nouns and some singular proper nouns.

  • Examples:
  • The research focused on the conditions under which sepsis occurred most often.
  • The patterns could be easily discerned.
  • Take care when pouring out the liquid.
  • The Rockies in Colorado are a popular tourist destination.
  • “The” is used with singular proper nouns in the following categories:
  • Government bodies (the Congress, the Senate)
  • Historical periods (the Restoration, the Ming Dynasty)
  • Religious texts, entities, and leaders (the I Ching, the Methodist Church, the Pope)

Geographical Terms

  1. Sometimes “the” is used with a geographical term, and sometimes it is not.

  2. The following use “the”:
  3. Landmarks (the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum)
  4. Large bodies of water (the Atlantic, the Red Sea)
  5. Points on the globe (the North Pole, the Equator)
  6. Deserts, forests, gulfs, peninsulas, and mountain ranges (the Himalayas, the Sahara Desert)

Tip: If you are unsure if a proper noun takes “the,” try looking it up in a dictionary or usage guide. The Oxford Reference is a good place to try (oxfordreference.com). This will give you several examples of the term being used.

  • Do not use “the” with the following nouns:
  • Languages and nationalities (Korean, Arabic)
  • Subjects (math, reading, biology)
  • Sports (football, badminton)
  • Note that the definite article might be used in front of some of these words when they are used as a modifier for another noun, so be sure to determine whether the word is being used in this way, as in the following examples:
  • The Latin abbreviation
  • The math book
  • The badminton team


When NOT to Use "the"! (definite article)

When to Use Articles Before Nouns

For many English learners, articles are one of the most difficult things to remember! Articles are confusing because it’s not always necessary to use an article in English.

This lesson is about when NOT to use the definite article the. Sometimes it’s easier to remember when NOT to use something instead of trying to memorize when to use something!

Here are some situations in which you don’t need to use the.

1. Things in general

  • You don’t need an article when you talk about things in general.
  • The does NOT = all.
  • Use plural count nouns:

Cats are great pets!
You’re not talking about one specific cat or one specific pet. You’re talking about all cats and all pets in general.

  1. I love reading books.
  2. Women love it when men send them flowers!
  3. Houses are expensive in that neighbourhood.
  4. Americans drive big cars.

Use non-count nouns:

I love listening to music.
You enjoy music in general, not any specific song or kind of music.

  • She’s afraid of heights, so we couldn’t go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
  • I love chocolate!
  • Have you eaten lunch yet?

She’s a vegetarian. She doesn’t eat meat.

NOTE: Count nouns (or countable nouns) are nouns that have a singular and plural form because you can count them, for example one cat, two cats, three cats. Non-count (or uncountable nouns) are nouns that do not have a plural form. You cannot count non-count nouns. For example, you can’t say one music, two musics, three musics.

LEARN MORE: When to use “a” and “the” to talk about one of something

2. Names

Names of holidays, countries, companies, languages, etc. are all proper nouns. You don’t need to use an article with a proper noun.

a. Holidays

I got a beautiful new dress for Christmas.

I got my mom a necklace for Mother’s Day.

Everybody wears green on St. Patrick’s Day.

What are you doing on Valentine’s Day?

b. Geography
Articles are not used before countries, states, cities, towns, continents, single lakes, or single mountains.

I live in Canada.

Mt. Rosa is part of the Alps mountain range.
Mt. Rosa is one mountain. The Alps describe a group of mountains.

I’m going to Europe next month on vacation.

Lake Ontario and Lake Huron are 2 of the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes are a group of lakes on the border between Canada and the US.

Mt. Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan.

NOTE: There is an exception to every rule in English. The is part of the names of these countries:
the United States
the Czech Republic
the Philippines

c. Companies

How to Use Articles (The, A, An)

Almost every sentence that you say, hear, read, or write contains articles, yet most people cannot define what role these words play in the English language.

Simply put, articles define a noun as particular or non-particular.

The definite article the is used for specific nouns, while the indefinite article a or an is used for non-specific nouns, as seen in the following examples:

See also:  Comparatives versus superlatives

Donald wants to eat dinner at the new restaurant in Los Angeles.

Donald wants to eat dinner at a new restaurant in Los Angeles.

While both sentences are grammatically correct, they have slightly different meanings. The use of the article the in the first sentence makes it clear that Donald is referring to a specific restaurant. The use of the article a in the second sentence shows that Donald is simply looking for any new culinary experience the city has to offer.

The: The Definite Article

As mentioned above, the word the limits the noun being modified to something singular and specific. One of the most common words in the English language, the can be used with singular, plural, and uncountable nouns, as seen below:

  • Singular: She went to the rally about gun violence this afternoon.
  • Plural: She went to the rallies about gun violence this week.
  • Uncountable: She could feel the passion in the air at the rally.

A/An: The Indefinite Article

The indefinite articles of a and an are used when the noun being modified is general and non-specific. For example:

John asked Sophie to buy a bottle of wine to have with dinner.

The children are excited to see an elephant at the zoo today.

In the first sentence, John is not concerned with which particular bottle of wine he will have with dinner, but rather that Sophie should buy any bottle. In the second sentence, the children don’t care which elephant they will see at the zoo, but simply that they will see any elephant.

Articles with Plural Nouns

The indefinite articles a and an are used to modify singular nouns. When using a plural noun, these two articles are unnecessary. Plural nouns can take either a definite article or no article at all.

The definite article is the word the. It precedes a noun when something specific (i.e., definite) is being referred to.

Indefinite articles, on the other hand, are used before nouns that are nonspecific within their class.

I bumped into
a lady on the sidewalk.

We do not know from this statement who specifically this lady is. We only know generally that the person is a lady.

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  • Plural nouns can be used with the definite article or no article at all; to use an indefinite article would be incorrect.

I have a books in my locker.

I have books in my locker.

I have the books in my locker.

  1. It is also unnecessary to use an indefinite article if there is an adjective in front of a plural noun.

When he is in public, he does an embarrassing things.

When he is in public, he does embarrassing things.

When he is in public, he does an embarrassing thing.

When selecting courses, there are a many options to choose from.

  • A is not necessary in this sentence and should be removed. However, if you want to refer to the specific quantity of options, the sentence can be rephrased to use the definite article the with a plural noun:

You may select courses from the many options available


You can explore more by reading Articles: Grammar Rules and Plural Nouns: Rules and Examples.

Using Articles—A, An, The

Put simply, an article is a word that combines with a noun. Articles are actually adjectives because they describe the nouns that they precede. In English, there are only three articles: the, a, and an. However, the three are not interchangeable; rather, they are used in specific instances.

The following is some advice from our expert English editing staff regarding how to properly use articles.

Indefinite articles (a and an)

If indefinite articles are the proverbial thorn in your side, the good news is that you don't need a lot of grammatical jargon to understand their usage. You simply need your ears (okay, and maybe just a little grammatical jargon).

In English, a and an are indefinite articles, which means that they don't refer to anything definite or specific.

If someone were to say, “Give me an apple,” you might be inclined to run out and pick one from the tree outside, or you may even run to the store and buy one.

By using the word an, the speaker has let you know that he or she is looking for any apple rather than a specific one.

The same can be said for the article a. If someone told you there's a dog on the road, you would probably want to go out and save it before a car came by.

Furthermore, you would know it's not your best friend's dog because the speaker chose to use the word a rather than call the pooch by name.

Hence, it's understood that the dog on the road is one of the millions of dogs in the world and is therefore not specific.

How do I know which one to use?

That's a very good question. Fortunately, the answer is quite simple. It's about listening to the words you're using. The rule for indefinite article usage is as follows:

  • Use a before nouns (or adjectives) that start with a consonant sound.
  • Use an before nouns (or adjectives) that start with a vowel sound.
  • Here are some examples from our English editing professionals:
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Please give the dog a cookie. (The noun cookie starts with a consonant sound, so a must be used.)

Please give the dog a delicious cookie. (Our editing professionals have put the adjective delicious in front of cookie, but as you can see, delicious still starts with a consonant sound, so a must still be used.)

That's an old car. (In this case, the word after the article is old, which starts with a vowel sound. Consequently, our English editors must use an.)

Remember that you're listening here. This isn't about the letter c or d being a consonant or the letter o being a vowel; it's about the sound they make (i.e., vowel sound or consonant sound). Here's another example that might help you understand:

I need to work for an hour before we go to dinner.

Articles – Grammar

“The” is used with both singular and plural nouns and with both countable and uncountable nouns when the noun is specific.

  • The book that I read last night was great.
    • In this sentence, “book” is a singular, countable noun. It is also specific because of the phrase “that I read last night.” The writer and reader (or speaker and listener) know which book is being referred to.
  • The books assigned for this class are very useful.
    • In this sentence, “books” is a plural, countable noun. It is also specific because of the phrase “for this class.” The writer and reader (or speaker and listener) know which books are being referred to.
  • The advice you gave me was very helpful.
    • In this sentence, “advice” is an uncountable noun. However, it is specific because of the phrase “you gave me.” It is clear which piece of advice was helpful.

Here are some more specific rules:

“The” is used in the following categories of proper nouns:

  • Museums and art galleries: the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Art
  • Buildings: the Empire State Building, the Willis Tower
  • Seas and oceans: the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean
  • Rivers: the Mississippi, the Nile
  • Deserts: the Sahara Desert, the Sonora Desert
  • Periods and events in history: the Dark Ages, the Civil War
  • Bridges: the London Bridge, the Mackinac Bridge
  • Parts of a country: the South, the Upper Midwest

In general, use “the” with plural proper nouns.

  • the Great Lakes
  • the French
  • the Rockies (as in the Rocky Mountains)

“The” is often used with proper nouns that include an “of” phrase.

  • the United States of America
  • the University of Minnesota
  • the International Swimming Hall of Fame

Use “the” when the noun being referred to is unique because of our understanding of the world.

  • The Earth moves around the sun.
  • Wolves howl at the moon.

Use “the” when a noun can be made specific from a previous mention in the text. This is also known as second or subsequent mention.

  • My son bought a cat. I am looking after the cat while he is on vacation.
  • I read a good book. The book was about how to use articles correctly in English.

“The” is used with superlative adjectives, which are necessarily unique (the first, the second, the biggest, the smallest, the next, the only, etc.).

  • It was the first study to address the issue.
  • She was the weakest participant.
  • He was the only

Definite and Indefinite Articles (a, an, the) – TIP Sheets – Butte College


In English there are three articles: a, an, and the. Articles are used before nouns or noun equivalents and are a type of adjective.

The definite article (the) is used before a noun to indicate that the identity of the noun is known to the reader.

The indefinite article (a, an) is used before a noun that is general or when its identity is not known. There are certain situations in which a noun takes no article.

As a guide, the following definitions and table summarize the basic use of articles. Continue reading for a more detailed explanation of the rules and for examples of how and when to apply them.

  • Definite article
  • the (before a singular or plural noun)
  • Indefinite article
  • a (before a singular noun beginning with a consonant sound)an (before a singular noun beginning with a vowel sound)
  • Count nouns – refers to items that can be counted and are either singular or plural
  • Non-count nouns – refers to items that are not counted and are always singular
    Rule #1Specific identity not known a, an (no article)
    Rule #2Specific identity known the the
    Rule #3All things or things in general (no article) (no article)

For the purposes of understanding how articles are used, it is important to know that nouns can be either count (can be counted) or noncount (indefinite in quantity and cannot be counted). In addition, count nouns are either singular (one) or plural (more than one). Noncount nouns are always in singular form.

For example, if we are speaking of water that has been spilled on the table, there can be one drop (singular) or two or more drops (plural) of water on the table.

The word drop in this example is a count noun because we can count the number of drops.

Therefore, according to the rules applying to count nouns, the word drop would use the articles a or the.

However, if we are speaking of water in general spilled on the table, it would not be appropriate to count one water or two waters — there would simply be water on the table. Water is a noncount noun. Therefore, according to the rules applying to noncount nouns, the word water would use no article or the, but not a.

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Following are the three specific rules which explain the use of definite and indefinite articles.

Rule #1 – Specific identity not known: Use the indefinite article a or an only with a singular count noun whose specific identity is not known to the reader. Use a before nouns that begin with a consonant sound, and use an before nouns that begin with a vowel sound.

  • Use the article a or an to indicate any non-specified member of a group or category.

I think an animal is in the garageThat man is a scoundrel.We are looking for an apartment.

  • Use the article a or an to indicate one in number (as opposed to more than one).

I own a cat and two dogs.

  • Use the article a before a consonant sound, and use an before a vowel sound.

a boy, an apple

◊ Sometimes an adjective comes between the article and noun:

an unhappy boy, a red apple

  • The plural form of a or an is some. Use some to indicate an unspecified, limited amount (but more than one).

an apple, some apples

Rule #2 – Specific identity known: Use the definite article the with any noun (whether singular or plural, count or noncount) when the specific identity of the noun is known to the reader, as in the following situations:

  • Use the article the when a particular noun has already been mentioned previously.

I ate an apple yesterday. The apple was juicy and delicious.

  • Use the article the when an adjective, phrase, or clause describing the noun clarifies or restricts its identity.

The boy sitting next to me raised his hand.Thank you for the advice you gave me.

  • Use the article the when the noun refers to something or someone that is unique.

the theory of relativitythe 2003 federal budget

Rule #3 – All things or things in general: Use no article with plural count nouns or any noncount nouns used to mean all or in general.




The 3 articles in English are a, an and the. The learner has to decide noun-by-noun which one of the articles to use*. In fact, there are 4 choices to make, because sometimes no article is necessary.

Native-speakers, of course, use the articles correctly without thinking in everyday spoken language. English learners, on the other hand, need to have some guidelines for making the right choice – particularly those learners whose own language does not have articles, such as Japanese or Korean.

The guidelines that follow here should help ESL students to a basic understanding of English article use.

  • The most important first step in choosing the correct article is to categorize the noun as count or uncount in its context**:
  • – A count noun is a noun that can have a number in front of it: 1 teacher, 3 books, 76 trombones, 1,000,000 people.
  • – An uncount noun is a noun that cannot have a number put in front of it: 1 water, 2 lucks, 10 airs, 21 oils, 39 informations. Once you have correctly categorized the noun (using your dictionary if necessary), the following “rules” apply:
  • Uncount nouns
  • You cannot say a/an with an uncount noun.
  • You cannot put a number in front of an uncount noun. (You cannot make an uncount noun plural.)
  • You use an uncount noun with no article if you mean that thing in general.
  • You use the with an uncount noun when you are talking about a particular example of that thing.

Count nouns

  • You can put a number in front of a count noun. (You can make a count noun plural.)
  • You can put both a/an and the in front of a count noun.
  • You must put an article in front of a singular count noun.
  • You use a plural count noun with no article if you mean all or any of that thing.
  • You usually use a/an with a count noun the first time you say or write that noun.
  • You use the with count nouns:
    • the second and subsequent times you use the noun in a piece of speech or writing
    • when the listener knows what you are referring to (maybe because there is only one of that thing)
  • You use an (not a) when the next word (adverb, adjective, noun) starts with a vowel sound.


  • The above rules apply whether there is or there is not an adjective in front of the noun.
  • Some nouns can be either count or uncount, depending on the context and meaning:
    • Do you have paper? I want to draw a picture. (uncount = a sheet of paper)
    • Can you get me a paper when you�re at the shop? (count = a newspaper)
  • Uncount nouns are often preceded by phrases such as: a lot of .. (luck), a piece of .. (cake), a bottle of .. (milk), a grain of .. (rice).
  • * Instead of an article, the noun can also be preceded by a determiner such as this, that, some, many or my, his, our, etc.

Following are some of the most important guidelines listed above, with example sentences:

1. You use an uncount noun with no article if you mean all or any of that thing.
  • I need help!
  • I don't eat cheese.

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