Articles are words that signal that a noun is coming up. For example, a, an, and the are the most commonly used articles.
To better understand how and when to use articles, it is important to understand nouns. Nouns are words that identify a person, place, or thing. Examples of nouns include: boys, women, Seattle, Virginia, paper, etc.
There are also two different kinds of nouns: count and noncount.
Count nouns refer to people, places, and things that can be counted.
For example, twenty students, eight rooms, one box, and four socks are all count nouns.
Noncount nouns, on the other hand, refer to items, qualities, or concepts that cannot be counted. It is important to note that noncount nouns usually do not have plural forms (do not add –s or –es to the end of the words).
Some examples of noncount nouns are: loyalty, information, pollution, salt, steel, etc.
Now that we better understand count and noncount nouns, we can take a look at rules for articles.
- Use a or an to signal singular count nouns whose identity is not specified.
A comes before words that begin with a consonant sound: b, c, d, f, g, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, z, usually h (as in words like harbor, hurt, and hand, when the h is heard), sometimes u (as in words like universe, unity, and university), and usually y.
An comes before words that begin with a vowel sound: a, e, i, o, u, sometimes h (as in words like herb and hour, when the h is not really heard), and sometimes u (as in words like under, unlikely, and unseen).
A bird flew over the trees.
A university offers more classes than a community college.
An hour seems like days in algebra class.
An officer arrived quickly.
- Do not use an article with noncount nouns.
Incorrect: Lily borrowed a sugar from her new neighbors. (This is incorrect because sugar cannot be counted.)
Correct: Lily borrowed sugar from her new neighbors. [OR] Lily borrowed a cup of sugar from her new neighbors.
Incorrect: Robert gave Tina a jewelry for their anniversary.
Correct: Robert gave Tina jewelry for their anniversary.
- Use the to signal most specific nouns—both count and noncount.
The road was closed due to construction.
The professor provided feedback on the students’ book reports.
The information regarding her file was kept private.
The advice given to first-year students about avoiding procrastination can be very helpful.
- Do not use the before noncount or plural nouns that mean “in general.”
Incorrect: The health is very important to Liz.
Correct: Health is very important to Liz. (In general)
Incorrect: I always leave the beach with the sand in my bag.
Correct: I always leave the beach with sand in my bag.
- In article + adjective + noun combinations, use the article that fits the sound of the adjective, not the sound of the noun (a for consonant sounds, an for vowel sounds).
Incorrect: A icy road can cause hazardous driving conditions.
Correct: An icy road can cause hazardous driving conditions.
Incorrect: An hard-working employee can be quickly promoted.
Correct: A hard-working employee can be quickly promoted.
This information was retrieved directly from Chris Juzwiak’s Stepping Stones: A Guided Approach to Writing Sentences and Paragraphs, published by Bedford/St. Martin’s in 2009.