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Articles: A/An and The

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Common mistakes

  1. (NG) I have pen.
    1. (OK) I have a pen
  2. (NG) I saw a dog. A dog is cute.
    1. (OK) I saw a dog. The dog is cute.

Special Note

The topic of articles (a/an, and the) is challenging. One reason for this is that the rules for using articles are many and, in addition to the rules, there are almost as many exceptions to the rules. That said, however, in this lesson, I would like to provide some basic ideas, guidelines, and rules of thumb about how we use articles.

A Singular Countable Noun Never Travels Alone

As mentioned in the first chapter, English has both countable and uncountable nouns. When considering which article (a/an, or the) to use, the first rule of thumb is this: A singular countable noun never travels alone. Say that sentence to yourself a few more times. A singular countable noun never travels alone.

Let’s look at the noun pen. Pen is a singular countable noun. You can say things like:

  • I have a pen.
  • I have the pen you gave me.
  • I have my pen.
  • I have your pen.
  • I have his pen.
  • I have a nice old blue pen.

But, I can’t say, I have pen.

That’s because the word pen is a singular countable noun, and before a singular countable noun you need to have some kind of determiner. A determiner could be an article, like a or the, or a pronoun, like my, your, or his. Well, what about an adjective? Can I say, I have blue pen? No. That’s because even if you do have an adjective before a singular countable noun, you still need to have a determiner like a or the.

One Of Many

The article a means one of many. If you want to write something, you need a pen. You need a pen. This means that there are many pens in the world and you need one of them in order to write something. If you want to write something, you need a pen.

Not A Particular Or Specific One

The main difference between a and the is that the refers to something particular or specific. On the other hand, a refers to something in general. A banana is yellow. I am not talking about any particular or specific banana here. I’m just saying that in general, A banana is yellow. Compare these two sentences:

  1. A banana is yellow
  2. The banana on the table is yellow.

In the first sentence, I’m talking about bananas in general and not any particular or specific banana. A banana is yellow. But in the second sentence, I’m talking about a particular or specific banana – the banana that is on the table. That’s why I say, the banana on the table is yellow.

The First and Second Mention

When we mention a noun for the first time, we use the article a. I have a pen and a pencil. There are many pens and pencils in the world and I have one of each.

I have a pen and a pencil. The pen is blue and the pencil is yellow. You’ll notice that the second time I mentioned the pen and the pencil I used the:

I have a pen and a pencil. The pen is blue and the pencil is yellow. Why?

Well, in English, the first time that you mention a noun, you’re talking about something in general. I have a pen and a pencil. But the second time that you mention it, it becomes something specific in the conversation. The pen is blue and the pencil is yellow. I use the pen and the pencil because I am talking about the specific pen and pencil I have.

There Is Only One

We use the when the thing we are talking about is the only one thing. We do this even if it is the first time that you mention the noun.

  1. The sun and the moon are in the sky.
  2. The president of this country has a very difficult job to do.
  3. The man at the front desk is the receptionist.

In a similar idea, we use the when the only one thing we are talking about is a superlative (the fastest, the biggest, the best).

  1. Derick isthe best sales person we have in this office.
  2. The tallest building in the world is in Dubai.
  3. We were debating which bullet train is the fastest.

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