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Your Quick Guide to Articles: "A," "An," and "The"

While learning the English language has its challenges, articles in English can be quite simple to understand if you know the general rules surrounding their use. And there's further good news—there are only three: a, an and the.

Article basics and use

An article is an adjective that is used to modify a noun. It will come before the noun in English sentence structure, although there could be an adjective between the article and the noun.

Here are some examples of articles in a sentence:

  • The rat escaped from the cat's grasp.
  • A delicious dinner will follow the keynote address.
  • I think tonight will be an eventful evening.

A and an (the indefinite articles)

The choice between these two indefinite articles depends on the noun the article modifies. "A" is used with a noun that has a consonant sound at the beginning, while "an" is used with a noun that has a vowel sound at the beginning.

But be careful here—a common mistake people make is to assume that they should focus on the literal spelling of the noun, when rather, they should focus on the sound. For example, look at the phrases and article use below. Note that in some cases, "A" comes before a vowel-led word instead of "An" if the word sounds like it begins with a consonant:

  • An unforgettable moment
  • An unworthy opponent
  • An octagon
  • An honor ("hon" sounds like "on")
  • An only child
  • An x-ray ("x" sounds like "ex")
  • A younger woman
  • A university dorm ("u" sounds like "you")
  • A one-track mind
  • A unique opportunity ("u" sounds like "you")

The (the definite article)

When deciding whether to use "The" as the article of choice for a noun in a sentence, the first question you must ask is related to specificity. In other words, is the article referring to a specific object or a non-specific object?

For example, let's look at the sentence: Please lock the door before you leave.

In this example, the speaker is referring to a specific door that is likely known to the person to whom the sentence is spoken. Usually this is the front door or the main door to a room or building, so when told to "lock the door on your way out," you can usually infer which door.

However, imagine if the speaker had said: Please lock a door before you leave. In this case, the person hearing the information would likely be confused. Which door? Well…according to the speaker, any door, as long as it is a door. If that doesn't make sense, then using "the" as the article is the correct choice.

Here are some other examples of sentences in which "The" is the correct article choice:

The car parked in our driveway needs to be moved.
Please place the book you're carrying back on the shelf.
I lost my phone at the grocery story yesterday.

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