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Articles‏‎ in English Grammar

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A fly.

There are three types of Articles in English‏‎. Put simply, we use articles to let people know what kind of noun we’re talking about.

Take the word, fly, for example. If I just use the word on its own I’m speaking very generally.

These flies are annoying me.

If I put an Indefinite Article before it, I’m talking about a single fly but I’m not bothered about identifying it; it’s an anonymous fly from the whole load of them which are annoying me.

There’s a fly in my soup!

And finally if I put a Definite Article before it, then I’m talking about a very specific fly and no other.

The fly on the end of your nose looks very angry!

So then,  there are the 3 articles.

  • the Zero Article (empty, i.e. no article at all)
  • the Indefinite Article: a/an
  • the Definite Article: the

The zero article (i.e. no article) is a useful term to describe when we do not use an article. It’s talked about more below.

When do we Use Articles?

We mostly use articles before a noun.

I like drinking water.

I like a cup of tea before bed.

I like the taste of malt whisky.

When we talk about a group of nouns in general, we use the zero article‏‎ (that is, no article at all). Here we are talking about all cats.

Cats like sleeping.

When we talk about one example of a group we use the indefinite article‏‎. Here we are talking about one cat from many; the exact identity of the cat isn’t important:

There is a cat in the garden.

When we talk about one specific example of the group, we use the definite article‏‎. Here we are talking about one special cat:

The cat with the grey and black coat is mine.

A or An?

Quite simply we use a before a consonant sound and an before a vowel sound. The meaning is exactly the same:

a bird, a jet, a Frenchman

an eagle, an aeroplane, an American

Note that it is the sound which is important, not the spelling. Here the sound is /j/ which is a consonant sound so we use a.

a yellow bird

In this case the sound following the article is /e/ so we use an:

an x-ray

One

The meaning of a/an is one. We do not use one unless we want to specify exactly how many:

Can you lend me one pound please, I don’t need any more.

Did you see two cats in the garden? – No, I only saw one cat.

In general, we do not use one very much and mostly use a or an.

Useful Links

Definite Article‏‎s in English Grammar – more on this

Indefinite Article‏‎s in English Grammar – more on this

Zero Article‏‎ in English Grammar – more on this

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