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English Grammar: Articles

This section, on the use of articles in English (a/an/the), has a video story and a series of exercises. You can watch the whole video or just watch smaller sections of it. Some exercises are easier, with gaps indicated for missing articles; other exercises are harder because no gaps are indicated. You can also download a PowerPoint with the material from the video.

Ms Parrot - Thanks a Million!

View the introductory video on articles and how they work. This video is both educational and humorous! Watch the whole story, or see sections of the story below.

Download the PowerPoint that accompanies the video. Download the information on this page as a pdf or word document and download the exercises in pdf format or as a word document.

 

To view the video through the Chinese site Youku, please click here.

To do the exercises, think carefully about each noun, using the following chart:

Is the noun singular and countable? Is the noun plural or uncountable?
Yes Yes
Is it definite? Is it definite?
yes no yes no
the a/an the no article

The above chart is based on information in: Master, P 1986, Science, medicine and technology: English grammar and technical writing, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey.

You will also find this chart, and further exercises, in the learning guides on articles which I produced for Flinders University and the University of Adelaide.

Remember: If you have a singular countable noun then you must use an article in almost every case. (If you have words like my, one, each or both before the noun, then no article is necessary.) If you don’t know whether a noun is countable or not, check in an English learner’s dictionary. There are at least six of these freely available online.

Sometimes there is more than one choice when using an article – even native speakers disagree, depending on whether or not they feel the noun is definite or not.

  • The definite article (the)

    If your reader or listener understands what you are referring to, then you will usually need the definite article:
    I bought a book last week. The book is about trees. (You have just mentioned the book, so you both know which one.)
    We went to a wedding yesterday. The bride wore a lovely dress. (You have not mentioned the bride before, but you both know she is connected to the wedding.)

    Some things are taken to be common knowledge in English and therefore take the definite article:

    Decades – He was born in the 1920s.
    Currencies – The dollar is getting stronger against the pound.
    Superlatives and ordinals – The second book in the series is the best.
    Oceans, seas and many rivers –The Nile flows into the Mediterranean.
    Plural or ‘united’ countries (those which have the word United in their name) – The Maldives are much smaller than the United States of America.
    Adjectives used as nouns – The poor will always be a challenge for the rich in any country.
    Many organisations – The World Health Organisation has a detailed definition of health.
    A scientific categorisation – The zebra is native to Africa.
    A symbol – The Merlion is a symbol of Singapore.
    Unique people, places or things – The prime minister said she would call a conference on changes affecting the earth’s climate. (Each country has only one prime minister, so in that sense the person is unique.)
    Unique adjectives – The same people always take the only parking spaces available.

    Other word patterns which take the:

    Specific nouns modified by a relative clause – The paintings (which are) in the gallery
    Specific nouns followed by ‘of’. This is a very common pattern – The use of this procedure 
    Plural nouns preceded by ‘of’ – e.g. None of the paintings were interesting.

    Common error:

    You cannot write most of paintings or none of paintings. It is either most of the paintings (definite) or most paintings (general).

    Most of the paintings in the exhibition were landscapes. (definite – we know which specific paintings – they are in the exhibition)

    Most paintings nowadays are quite abstract. (general – not specific paintings)

  • The indefinite article (a/an)

    If the noun is singular and countable, and this is the first time you have mentioned it, then you will usually need the indefinite article:

    I bought a book – we do not know which book.

    There is a bird outside – we do not know anything about the bird.

    Measurements and rates also take the indefinite article: Three times a week

  • No article

    We do not need an article if a noun is plural or uncountable and it is not definite.

    Women generally live longer than men.
    Articles
    are difficult to use.
    Paint
    is hard to remove.

  • Definitions

    Definitions can take a/an, the or no article. For example,

    A library is a place where you find books. This means that any library is a place where you find books.

    The library is a place where you find books. This views the library as a particular type of place, representative of a category of buildings such as university buildings. (For instance, the library, the lecture theatre or the student centre are buildings that can be found on all university campuses in Australia).

    Libraries are places where you find books. This means that all libraries are places where you find books.

  • Zero and null articles – for advanced grammar lovers

    'Zero article' and 'null article' refer to those occasions when you do not use an article. Peter Master (1997, p. 222) gives six ways in which a zero article can be used with a noun:

    first mention (Men are fools); general characteristics (Snails have shells); existential there (There are holes in your socks); defining postmodification (Cars from Japan are reliable); partitive of-phrases (We drank gallons of coffee); and intentional vagueness (Capitals of nations are rich).

    The 'null article' appears before proper nouns and some singular countable nouns. For example, Ms Parrot visited us after lunch.

    There is controversy about the application of the terms 'zero' and 'null' article. If you'd like to know more about them, have a look at the references section below.

  • References and further reading

    Chesterman, A. (1991). On definiteness: A study with special reference to English and Finnish. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

    Christophersen, P. (1939). The articles: A study of their theory and use in English. Copenhagen: Einar Munksgaard.

    Hawkins, J. A. (1978). Definiteness and indefiniteness. London: Croom Helm.

    Hewson, J. (1972). Article and noun in English. The Hague: Mouton.

    Liu, D., & Gleason, J. L. (2002). Acquisition of the article the by nonnative speakers of English: An analysis of four nongeneric uses. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 1-26. doi: 10.1017.S0272263101241011

    Lyons, C. (1999). Definiteness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Master, P.A. (1986). Science, medicine and technology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

    Master, P. (1990). Teaching the English articles as a binary system. TESOL Quarterly, 24, 461-478. doi: 10.2307/3587230

    Master, P. (1995). Consciousness raising and article pedagogy. In D. Belcher & G. Braine (Eds.), Academic writing in a second language: Essays on research and pedagogy (pp. 183-204). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

    Master, P. (1997). The English article system: Acquisition, function, and pedagogy. System, 25, 215-232. doi: 10.1016/S0346-251X(97)00010-9

    Yoo, I. W. (2009). The English definite article: What ESL/EFL grammars say and what corpus findings show. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8, 267-278. doi: 10.1016/j.jeap.2009.07.004

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