David Appleyard's English Language User Guides and References
Page Contents
A Short Article on Articles The Definite Article
The Indefinite Article The Zero Article

 

A Short Article on Articles

For better or for worse, English is blessed with articles. This causes a considerable amount of confusion for speakers of most of the world's other languages, who seem to get on rather well without them. The good news is that English began dropping the complex case systems and grammatical genders still prevalent in other European languages a very long time ago. Now we are left with just two forms of the indefinite article (a & an) and one form of the definite article (the). Perhaps more than anything it is the transition from being a language with synthetic structure to one which is more analytic that has helped gain English the kind of unrivalled worldwide acceptance it enjoys today.  

Although greatly simplified, English article usage still poses a number of challenges to speakers of other European languages. Let's compare the German sentence "Da er Botaniker ist, liebt er die Natur" with the corresponding English one "Being a botanist, he is fond of nature". You'll see that English puts an indefinite article in front of a profession but German doesn't. Conversely, English manages without articles in front of abstract nouns like nature, where German needs a definite article.

Even between British and American usage one finds subtle differences in nuance or emphasis. For example, Americans usually say someone is in the hospital, much as they could be at the bank or in the park. To the British this sounds like there is only one hospital in town or that the American is thinking of one hospital in particular that he or she patronizes. The Brits say an ailing person is in hospital, just as they would say a child is at school or a criminal is in prison. This is because they are thinking more of the primary activities that take place within those institutions rather than the buildings in which they are housed. If, however, you are merely visiting one of these places, you are at the hospital, at the school or at the prison — both British and Americans agree here that what we have in mind is the building itself.

These few examples serve to illustrate that there is more to articles than first meets the eye. From whatever perspective you are viewing this page, we hope you'll discover that articles are actually precision tools that greatly contribute to the unique accuracy of expression afforded by the English language. Most article usage does in fact have a reasonably logical explanation. If this can be properly grasped then non-native English can be made a lot less conspicuous and many misunderstandings avoided.

David V. Appleyard

 

The Indefinite Article

To facilitate pronunciation, a is used in front of any word that begins with a consonant or consonant-like vowel sound.

Conversely, an is put in front of any word that begins with a pure vowel sound or a mute 'h'.
Our town has a theatre, a university,
a large park and a conference hall.
 

Many Chinese still believe an Englishman
always carries an umbrella.

It's an old custom.
It's a strange old custom.
Note that spelling is not a reliable indicator of when to use a or an.   The coastguard received an SOS.
He spent an hour standing in line. 
The indefinite article a or an is placed in front of a countable noun that is being mentioned for the very first time. Once introduced, all further references to it can be preceded by the definite article the. I have two cars: a Ford and an Audi.
The Ford is white and the Audi is silver.
In English, an indefinite article is needed in front of professions. She is an architect and he is a doctor.
The indefinite article can also be used instead of per when giving the rate or pace of something. He earns $200 a day.
She swims twice a week.
He drove at 60 miles an hour.
Note too that little and few become a whole lot more positive when preceded by the indefinite article! She has a little money and a few friends,
so she'll probably get by.

Compare:
She has little money and few friends,
so I doubt if she'll get by.

The Definite Article

The definite article the is used in front of any noun the listener or reader already knows about.   I have two cars: a Ford and an Audi.
The
Ford is white and the Audi is silver.
The is also used when the existence of something is common knowledge or comes as no surprise because of the context in which it is mentioned.   Last week a fighter plane crashed into a field
but the pilot managed to eject safely.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at home.

I threw my work clothes into the washing machine
and went outside to sit in the garden.
The definite article is used in front of things generally regarded as unique. The sun, the moon, the sea, the sky, the Arctic Circle, the environment, the capital, the air, the ground, etc.  
Because nouns preceded by superlative adjectives and ordinal numbers are by their very nature unique, they too require the definite article.

Exception:
Spoken American English drops the in dates.
It was the worst day of my life!

The captain was the first person to leave the burning tanker.

 BrE  June the twenty-first. The twenty-first (day) of June.
 AmE  June twenty-first. 
The definite article is used in front of countable nouns representing a whole class or category of something. The computer has changed our lives.

It is left up to the consumer to decide which one to buy.

We all have a duty to look after the old and infirm.

The blue whale is thought to be the largest animal ever to have lived.
The is used in front of oceans, seas, rivers, island and mountain chains, deserts, countries with plural names, and noun forms of points of the compass. The Pacific, the Mediterranean, the Amazon,
the
West Indies, the Rockies, the Sahara,
the
Netherlands, the Far East, etc.
The is used in titles and place names including of. It is unlikely the Queen of Denmark has
ever swum in the Bay of Bengal.
In the case of official job titles, the is usually dropped if there is only one such incumbent at any given time. Margrethe II is (the) Queen of Denmark.

Donald was elected chairman of the board.
The is also used in proper names consisting of noun(s) and/or adjective(s) + noun.   The Empire State Building, the English Channel, the White House, the Royal Festival Hall, the Rolling Stones, the Berlin Philharmonic (Orchestra), the British Museum, the Titanic, etc.
The is used in hotel names. The Hilton Hotel, the Savoy, the Sheraton
The is used for newspapers.   The Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Australian
The is used for many larger organizations and institutions (not commercial enterprises), including those with initials that are normally spelled out.
 
Acronyms (initials read as whole words) are treated in the same way as regular names (proper nouns) and so do not require any article. If you are uncertain, please monitor usage in the media or consult a dictionary.
The Commonwealth, the Fed, the EU, the WHO, the BBC, the FDA, the IAEA, etc.

Compare:
OPEC, NATO, ICANN, etc.
The is used for currencies.   The U.S. dollar has risen against the yen
but fallen against the euro. 
In front of people's names, however, the is only used to avoid confusion. I'm the David Appleyard that lives in Japan.
The is used with the names of musical instruments.   Richard Clayderman plays the piano.
The can be used instead of a possessive form when referring to parts of the body and items of clothing. She was hit on the head by a snowball
(= a snowball hit her head).

Joe grabbed the youth by the collar
(= Joe grabbed the youth's collar).
Many forms of entertainment are preceded by the definite article the, but not the medium of television. I go to the cinema/movies, the theatre,
the circus, the ballet and the opera.

In the daytime I listen to the radio,
but in the evenings I prefer to watch television.

The Zero Article

No article is needed before abstract nouns used in a general sense. Love is all you need.

Crime is a growing problem in the inner cities.
No article is needed for most places consisting of just the name of a person, or the name of a person/place followed by a noun. Harrods, Macys, McDonald's, Lloyds Bank, St. Paul's Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, Kennedy Airport, Waterloo Station, Cambridge University, etc.
No article is usually needed in front of company names. Cisco Systems, Microsoft, CBS, EMI, Hitachi, Lufthansa, Facebook, etc
An article is unnecessary in official job titles if there is only one person holding this position at any given time. George Osborne is (the) Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Compare:
George Osborne is a Cabinet minister.
No article is needed in front of most roads, streets, parks, squares or bridges. Oxford Street, Orchard Road, Central Park, Times Square, Tower Bridge, etc.
No article is needed in the names of single mountains, only mountain ranges. While in New Zealand I climbed Mount Cook, which is the highest peak in the Southern Alps.
No article is needed before the names of meals, unless it is a formal occasion. Roger had breakfast in his hotel room.

Compare:
I attended a dinner at the Rotary Club.
No article is needed for the names of games or sports.   Anna Kournikova plays tennis to keep in shape.
No article is needed before bed, church, court, hospital, prison, school, college, university, etc. when these are used for their primary purpose.

If, however, they are used for any other purposes, the is required.
She stayed in bed on Sunday morning
instead of going to church.
 
The angry customer threatened to take him to court.
 
The aging dissident was released from prison.
 
After graduating from high school he went to university.


Compare:

She sat on the bed while she changed her socks.

He entered the church to photograph its interior.
 
Some decorators forgot a ladder in the prison and they found the place empty when they came back for it.
Articles are not needed in more abstract expressions of situation like to/at sea, to/at/out of work, in/out of town, in/out of office, etc.

If, however, you start talking about somewhere concrete or some place in particular, then the definite article the is required.
My uncle first went to sea at the age of 15.
He used to spend several months at sea.
 
I go to work every day. I was at work yesterday.
 
Jack's been out of work for almost a year.
 
What's on in town (= my local town) this weekend?

Pat's out of town (= the town she lives in) until Tuesday.
 
This government has been in office for about a year now. The opposition parties would dearly love to vote it out of office.


Compare:
I went to the sea/seaside to swim.

I stayed by the sea/seaside all day. 

What's on in the town (= a particular town, not necessarily my own) this weekend?

How do I get out of the town? 

Sally spent all day in the office (= her workplace).
She didn't get out of the office much before 7 o'clock.
No article is needed before television as a medium, only as an appliance. Carol saw her brother on television.

Compare:
She had an indoor antenna on the television.
There is no article before a noun followed by a categorizing letter or number. The students have just read section C.

The Chicago train is about to depart from track 5.

Her flight leaves from gate 32.

He fell asleep on page 816 of "War and Peace".

She is staying in room 689. 
To give added punch, articles are often dropped in the titles of books, movies, music and other works of art.

Even if an article exists in the original title, as in J.R.R. Tolkien's  "The Lord of the Rings", people tend to omit this when making reference to it in everyday speech or writing.
"Journey into Hell" sounds even more thrilling
 than "The Journey into Hell".

"Have you read 'Lord of the Rings' right through?"
To save space and boost impact, articles are usually dropped in headlines. "Iraqi Head Seeks Arms"

"Stolen Painting Found by Tree"

"Police Confirm Shotgun Attack on Bullet Train"