Sunday, August 14, 2011

How to use articles in English - Part 2

Get ready because this will just knock your socks off.  If your socks weren't knocked off already by the last post.

Today I'm going to discuss and define two of the most commonly used articles in the English language.  Keep in mind that there are many other words that can serve as articles, but today we're only going to talk about "a" "an" and "the".

Hey wait, that's three articles.  Well, almost.  "a" and "an" are really the same thing, except "an" was designed to make transitions more pleasing and easy to execute.  So, actually I'm really talking about "a/an" and "the"...two.

First, you need to know that "a/an" means one; one thing, one group from many.  Meaning it has not been mentioned, or is in no way special...yet.  Later it might be.  In fact, when you mention something (usually an object, or unknown person) for the first time, you might use "a/an".

Below is a paragraph that examines examples of how these articles can be, and should be used.

"I walked into the kitchen.  There was a small glass on the table.  In the glass, there was a mouse.  The mouse was wearing a red sweatshirt, and an orange beret on his head.  The beret was one of those berets you might see in Paris, near the Eiffel tower."

First, in front of the word "kitchen" is "the".  What that is communicating is that in this house there is only one kitchen, or (if the house has more than one kitchen) that we all know which kitchen is being talked about.

Second, "a small glass on the table" means we haven't yet spoken of this glass, it's not the only glass in the house or kitchen, and the word after "a" starts with a "consonant sound".  Further it means that there is one table in the kitchen, or one main table.  if the writer were referring to another table, he would mention it by writing "on one of the tables".

The other sentences you could probably analyze in a similar way.

Notice that in the third sentence the glass that was introduced with "a" is now preceded by "the".  That's because the glass is now known to be the one that the author is referring to.  Also, "mouse" is introduced with "a".  That's because this particular mouse has not been seen/mentioned before this.

In the next sentence it's now: "The mouse...."  This is because the author wants us to know that he is talking about the same mouse.

Analyze the rest of the paragraph...when you finish analyzing, continue reading.

Done?  Make sure you do it.  Even if you think that you haven't learned something, each step in this process will make an impression.  I'll also continue with more examples in future posts.

Okay, so in the last sentence we also have "the" in front of "Eiffel Tower".  That's because there is only one Eiffel Tower in Paris.  If there were many Eiffel Towers in Paris, the author might say "The Eiffel Tower near the Seine (River)."

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"a" or "an"...?

Let's take a look at another concept.  When do you use "a" and when do you use "an"?

This is based on one thing: the sound of the letter that starts the next word.  Again...the sound... the letter.  It is NOT based on the letter ITSELF.

If the sound is a consonant sound, use "a".

If the sound is a VOWEL SOUND, use "an".

"a house" is correct.

"a happy man" is correct.

"a hunter" is correct.

"a honest man" is INCORRECT.  "honest" begins with a silent (non-aspirated) letter "h".  Therefore, the word actually starts with the "o" sound.  That means "an honest man" is correct.

Many times I see "an house", "an hippy", "an happy" in Internet posts where the author thinks that he is being very correct by using the "an" form.

However, "an house", "an hippy", "an happy" are all INCORRECT.

The following are CORRECT: "an honest man", "an honor". 


1. Use "an" for words that start with vowel sounds.

2. Use "a" for words that start with a consonant sound.

3. "a" and "an" mean exactly the same thing.  Basically, one thing/group that has not been previously mentioned, or is not the only one in the world.

4. If something has been previously mentioned, use an article that is definite.

5. A definite article is one that defines something.  In "the table", "the" defines "table" as the only one, or the main one, or one that has been mentioned.


You need to be careful in English.  If a word is the name of something, but not an actual noun itself, you GENERALLY do not use an article.


I do not say:

"The London" when talking about the city of London.  I simply say "London".

I do say:

"The London Bridge" because I am defining "Bridge", not London.

If someone asks me, "Where are you going?" I do not say:

"Eiffel Tower"

I do say:

"The Eiffel Tower."  Again, because "The" is defining "tower", not "Eiffel".

If someone does say "The Eiffel", it is because they are really saying "the Eiffel Tower," and simply leaving "tower" silent, which is not correct, but native speakers will say such things...just to be cool.

Here's a sample conversation to help get the idea of articles more.

Me: What's that?

You: It is bird.  ("It's a bird" is correct, unless you are talking about a person named "Bird".  Which we know is not the case, because the question was "what".  If I were asking about a person, I would say "Who is that?"

The answer also cannot be "it's the bird", unless we have spoken about that specific bird already.

Here's a great conversation for understanding just how important articles are in English.

Me: What are you eating?

You: Apple. (the correct answer is "An apple."

Saying "Apple" sounds to me like you are eating something with the proper name of "Apple".  In this case the only thing with a proper name of "Apple" is Apple Computer Corporation.

Do you really want to tell people you are eating Apple Computer Corporation?  Do you want to risk such misunderstandings?

Keep following along with my series on using English articles, and avoid such silliness.