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Concourse 2

The essential guide to the article system

articles

Articles in English form a sub-class of determiners.  If you want the overview first, therefore, you should look at the essential guide to determiners (new tab).

This guide covers the essentials only (there is a link to a more comprehensive one in the in-service section in the list at the end of related guides) and focuses only on English which happens to have a reasonably well-developed article system.
However, at the outset, you should be aware of the fact that languages differ:


what?

What are articles?

English has three sorts of articles.  Here are six examples, showing two incidents of each of the English articles.

  1. That's an interesting idea
  2. He went to the museum
  3. Do not wash in hot water
  4. Give me a piece of that
  5. The Ambassador is coming
  6. Houses are expensive here
write or think Can you identify the sort of article used in those sentences?
Click when you've done that.

keys

Three key concepts in English

Notice that we say 'in English' here.  English speakers need to have a clear concept of what they are talking about before they can use the article system properly but the concepts are different from many languages.
French and Spanish speakers, for example, need to know what gender (masculine or feminine) a noun is before they can use an article but English makes different demands on its speakers.
Before you can teach the system, you need to have these three concepts very clear in your head (and so do the learners).

These are the concepts: 

  1. Is this noun definite or indefinite?
    This means we need to decide if we are talking about any example of the noun or this example of the noun.  It is the difference between:
        A salesman came to the door
    in which we know what sort of person came but we do not know who came exactly.  In other words we know what he was but not who he was.
    We say the door because we are not talking about any door: we probably mean my front door and we both know about it and again, here we know both what it was and which it was.
  2. Are we using the noun in a specific or non-specific (or generic) way?
    When we say
        A salesman came to the door
    We are being specific because we have identified the sort of person and we have been very clear about which door.
    However, if we say:
        Ø Salespeople knock on Ø doors
    we are not being specific at all.  We are talking about all salespeople in general and all doors in general.  That is what is meant by generic reference.
  3. Is it a mass or count noun?
    If you have followed the guide to countability (linked below) this will be a familiar idea.
    When we say, for example:
        Ø Butter is good for you
    we are using butter as a mass noun but when we say
        Ø Dogs need a lot of care and attention
    we are using dogs as a count noun and making it plural.
    We can't make a mass noun plural and we cannot use it with a plural verb form so we cannot have:
        *Butters are good for you
    There are four rules here worth making clear:
    1. A count noun in the plural can appear with the zero article:
          Parrots are interesting birds
    2. A count noun in the singular cannot appear with the zero article:
          *Parrot is interesting bird
    3. A mass noun can stand with the zero article:
          Food for parrots must be carefully selected
    4. A mass noun cannot appear with the indefinite article:
          *A food for parrots must be chosen carefully

police

The rules

The rules we follow arise from the three concepts we have identified.


1

Rule 1

Decide what you are talking about.  There are only three choices:

  1. One or some of many – indefinite but specific reference.
    This means that the speaker / writer is referring to a specific class of nouns but not to the specific instance of the noun.
    For example:
        A man arrived
        Ø People arrived
        Ø Information got lost
    In these examples, we only know what sort of noun is in question (i.e., we are specific about the sort of noun) but we do not know any more about the noun (i.e., we are indefinite about exactly what is being talked about).
    The reference is specific but indefinite.
  2. All of them, everywhere – generic reference.
    This also means the speaker / writer is referring to a whole class of nouns, not a single instance of the class.  For example:
        The wheel was an important invention
        A solicitor deals with legal matters
        Ø Doctors charge a lot in my country
    This is different from point 1. because in these examples, the speaker / writer is referring not to single instances of the nouns but to the whole class of nouns in general.
    The reference is, then, generic but indefinite (because nothing is being singled out).
  3. This one exactly – definite and specific reference.
    This means the speaker / writer is referring to a single, known instance of the noun.  We are not being vague and indefinite and we are not talking about a class of the noun.  We are being both definite and specific.
    For example:
        The man spoke to me.
        Ø London is the capital of Britain
        The wind is getting stronger
        Ø Sugar is on the shelf over there
    Here, the reference is both definite (we know which noun is being referred to) and specific (we know what sort of noun is in question).
    The reference is definite and specific.
test If you want to, you can try a quick test to see if you have this rule clear.
Click here to do it.

2

Rule 2

Now we can start to select the right articles depending on what we are talking about.
In each of these categories, there's a choice of which article to use.

  1. If we are talking about indefinite but specific reference (one of many or some of many), we can have, e.g.,
        A man came in
        Ø Men came in
        Ø Good furniture is expensive
    And the rules for mass and count noun articles which we identified above come into play.  We cannot have:
        *Ø Man came in
    because count nouns in the singular must take a determiner.
    or
        *A good furniture
    because mass nouns cannot take the indefinite article.
  2. If we are talking about generic reference (all of them or it, everywhere), we can have:
        A car is useful in the country
    or
        Ø Cars pollute
    or
        Ø Petrol is expensive
    or
        The cat is an independent animal
    And, again, the rules for mass and count noun use apply.
  3. If we are talking about definite specific reference (this one or amount exactly), we can have:
        The car is outside
        The sugar is in the cupboard
        The guests are here
        Ø Great Britain is an island
test If you want to, you can try a quick test to see if you have this second rule clear.
Click here to do it.

3

Rule 3

It matters if the noun is countable or uncountable (i.e., a mass noun), singular or plural.
English is not unique but it does has a fundamental and very important distinction between mass and count nouns.  Languages which do not have this distinction (or in which the distinction is not grammatically significant) generally have much simpler article systems, or none at all.  It is almost impossible to use a noun correctly in English unless one has first considered whether it is being used as a mass noun or a count noun.

Fortunately, Rule 3 is quite simple:

  Count nouns Mass nouns
Singular the picture
a picture
the paint
Ø paint
Plural the pictures
Ø pictures
To put that table into words we'll repeat ourselves a little:
  1. Singular count nouns must take a/an or the.  We allow:
        The parcel is here
        A parcel is here

    but not:
        *Parcel is here
  2. Plural count nouns must take the or Ø.  We allow:
        The parcels are here
        Parcels are here

    but not
        *A parcels are here
  3. Mass nouns must take the or Ø.  We allow:
        The packaging is expensive
        Packaging is expensive

    but not
        *A packaging is expensive
test If you want to, you can try a quick test to see if you can identify mass and count nouns accurately.
Click here to do it.

Now we can refine our rules by applying them to specific instances of the language.


many

Indefinite but specific reference (one of many)


write or think Here are three questions.  You will probably need a pen and a piece of paper to hand.
Make a note of the answers to the three questions and then click here for some comments.
  1. If you use indefinite but specific reference and want to talk about one of many uncountable (i.e., mass) nouns such as acid or furniture what article do you use?
    Fill these gaps with a(n), the or Ø:
    __________ tea contains as much __________ caffeine as __________ coffee
    I saw __________ rain had fallen
  2. If you use indefinite but specific reference and want to talk about one of many countable nouns such as houses or chairs, what article do you use?
    Fill these gaps with a(n), the or Ø:
    __________ room will be needed for the committee meeting.
    I saw __________ fox in the garden
  3. If you use indefinite but specific reference and want to talk about many countable nouns such as houses or chairs, what article do you use?
    Fill these gaps with a(n), the or Ø:
    __________ cars are expensive in my country
    We discovered __________ pollutants in the river water

earth

Generic reference (all of them, everywhere)


write or think Here are three more questions.
Make a note of the answers and then click here for some comments.
  1. If you use generic reference and want to talk about all uncountable (mass) things such as money, love or water what article do you use?
    Fill these gaps with a(n), the or Ø:
    We all need __________ love
    We discovered __________ pollution in the water
  2. If you use generic reference and want to talk about all countable things in the plural such as houses or animals, what article do you use?
    Fill these gaps with a(n), the or Ø:
    __________ houses are expensive everywhere
    I enjoy watching __________ animals
  3. If you use generic reference and want to talk about one countable thing in the singular as representative of all such as unicorn or wheel, what article do you use?
    Fill these gaps with a(n), the or Ø:
    __________ train is usually cheaper than driving alone
    __________ smart phone has changed people's lives
    __________ dog is a faithful animal

select

Definite and specific reference (this one exactly)


write or think Here are three last questions.
Make a note of the answers and then click here for some comments.
  1. If you use definite and specific reference and want to talk about one amount of a specific or particular uncountable (mass) thing such as acid or sugar what article do you use?
    Fill these gaps with a(n), the or Ø:
    __________ cardboard is in the garage
    __________ grass needs cutting
  2. If you use definite and specific reference and want to talk about more than one countable thing such as men or cars, what article do you use?
    Fill these gaps with a(n), the or Ø:
    __________ men you spoke to have decided
    The officer directed __________ bus drivers to their parking spaces
  3. If you use definite and specific reference and want to talk about one countable thing such as car or telephone, what article do you use?
    Fill these gaps with a(n), the or Ø:
    __________ car I bought was quite cheap
    __________ phone is ringing in the hallway
  4. If you use definite and specific reference and want to talk about one particular proper noun such as Berlin or Mary, what article do you use?
    Fill these gaps with a(n), the or Ø:
    __________ Napoleon was Emperor of France
    I gave the book to __________ Aunt Mary

Now we can summarise all the rules, including the notion of mass vs. count nouns.

summary final


exceptions

Exceptions with the

The English article system is often wrongly presented as an impossibly difficult area.  As we saw, however, the rules are quite simple.  There are, however, a few quirks and exceptions concerned with the use of the definite article.  Many of these, however, can be traced back to the rules above.
These aren't lesson topics – they should be taught as and when they arise.

  1. The known-unknown rule
    This is a supplementary rule for teaching purposes because it is actually covered in the rules we have seen so far.
    It is, however, quite teachable and concerns when the noun has been mentioned or it can be assumed that a unique reference is intended and understood.
    So we get, e.g.
        A car drove by and the driver waved
        The toilet's probably upstairs
    etc. because a car only has one driver and most houses only have one toilet.
    In the following:
        She bought a new car.  The car broke down on her first journey.
    the explanation is:
    1. in the first instance, we are referring to an indefinite specific reference for a countable noun and that, as we saw, requires the indefinite article.
    2. in the second instance, we are now referring to a definite specific reference for a countable noun (because we now know that the car was hers) and that requires the use of the definite article.
  2. When a noun is modified (by saying who, what, which or where something or someone is), it's also a sign of definite specific reference.
    So we get, e.g.
        The man who is married to the Minister
        The author of this guide
        The girl in the corner
        The flowers in her window
    etc.
  3. Unique objects (or objects unique in a certain shared setting): the sun, the moon, the Milky Way, the queen, the president etc.  A subset of this category contains things like nationalities, geographical areas and superlatives: the Greeks, the French, the biggest building, The Atlantic etc.
    The last of those can be explained by noting that the modifier has been omitted: The Atlantic (Ocean), The (River) Amazon, The Tate (Gallery) The Alps (Range), The Hilton (Hotel).  Note the convention to capitalise the article in some cases.  Plural countries always take the article: The Netherlands, The Bahamas, The Seychelles.
  4. Families count as plural definite specific reference: Take tea with the Windsors
  5. Rivers always take the definite article the, even if they aren't unique: The Stour, The Thames, The Nile.  Lakes don't usually but modification (The Great Lakes) occurs.

There are a couple of exercises for more advanced learners on article use in the section for learners on this site.  Go to that index, find the exercises and see if you can identify which rules from all of this are applicable (new tab).


Click to take a summary test in this area.



Related guides
the in-service guide this includes everything we have covered here but has extra sections on other languages and what is called the discourse use of the article system
determiners: the essentials this looks at articles in the context of other determiners such as my, that, some etc. 
lesson for elementary learners which focuses on the for unique use, some for mass nouns and plural count nouns and the known-unknown rule for using a(n) and the
this guide this is an abbreviated version of the in-service guide as a PDF document
teaching the system If you are happy that you have understood the nature of the article system in English
mass and count nouns this is an essential guide in the initial-plus section
nouns:essentials the guide to a major word class