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:
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.
Definite Articles in English Grammar – more on this
Indefinite Articles in English Grammar – more on this
Zero Article in English Grammar – more on this