Essentially, articles are adjectives. They are not used alone, but like adjectives, they modify nouns. In the English language, there are three articles: “a,” “an” and “the.” There are two types of articles, indefinite (“a” and “an”) and definite (“the”).
When the noun starts with a consonant sound, the article “a” is used. Consider the following example where “a” goes before words that begin with a consonant sound:
When the noun starts with a vowel sound, the article “an” is used. Consider the following example where “an” goes before words that begin with a vowel sound:
It is important to note that a consonant sound does not automatically mean beginning with a consonant, nor does a vowel sound mean beginning with a vowel. Pronunciation, not spelling, changes the rule. Consider the following examples:
Example 1: Max waited an hour to see the doctor. (“An” is used before the silent “h.” “Hour” is pronounced with an emphasis on the sound “our.” Therefore, “an hour” is correct.)
Example 2: Columbia is a university located in New York City. (“A” is used before university because it is pronounced with an emphasis that sounds like “youniversity.” Therefore, “a university” is correct.)
“A” and “an” are indefinite articles that are used to modify a non-specific noun or to talk about something general. Consider the following examples:
Example 1: Anna saw a dress she liked in a shop window. (“A dress” means any dress, not a particular dress, and “a shop” refers to a place of business that is not specific.)
Example 2: Dan ordered an omelet for breakfast. (“An omelet” refers to any omelet, not a particular omelet, such as a Spanish omelet.)
“The” is a definite article that is used to modify a noun of a particular person, place or thing and refers to a something that is particular, meaning it is identifiable, specific or certain. Consider the following examples:
Example 1: The capital of New York is Albany. (“The” refers to something that is certain.)
Example 2: Barack Obama lives in the White House. (“The” refers to a specific place).
The word “the” is often prefixed to the names of rivers, oceans and seas. For example, when the word “river” is eliminated, the article “the” clearly indicates a reference to a river. Consider the following examples:
Example 1: The Nile is 6,695 kilometers in length, which makes it the longest river in the world.
Example 2: Oceans cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface; the Atlantic is the second largest.
“The” is often used instead of possessive case, personal pronouns (his, her and others). Consider the following examples:
Example 1: I took care of the house while he was away. (“The” replaces the possessive pronoun “his” that shows ownership of the object “house.”)
Example 2: Jane’s mom decorated the Christmas tree beautifully. (“The” replaces the possessive pronoun “her” that shows ownership of the object “tree.”)
Some nouns do not take an article. When this occurs, it is categorized as “zero articles,” which simply means the absence of an article. A lack of an article implies that the noun is indefinite. These are most commonly seen with mass nouns (Italians) or plurals (mathematics). Nationalities, languages, academic subjects, sports and mountain ranges, for example, often dictate an omission of articles. Consider the following examples:
Example 1: Italians are known for speaking with their hands.
Example 2: There are four courses offered in mathematics.