One of the most common mistakes I see being made by non-native speakers of English is incorrect use of definite and indefinite articles – “a/an” and “the”. This mistake is particularly common in countries where the native language does not have a similar grammar rule, such as here in Lithuania. Even those who speak English proficiently frequently get this wrong, either by choosing the incorrect variant or by using no article at all.
In general, all nouns need to be preceded with either “the” or “a/an”.
(A noun is a “thing”, such as an apple, a book, etc.)
When to use “the”
- Use “the” when referring to a specific item. For example, you might say “Did you enjoy the movie?” In this case, you are asking about one specific movie – the movie you have just seen. (If you asked “Did you enjoy a movie?” the listener would be confused, as you are essentially asking if they have ever enjoyed a movie. Even if most of the movies they have seen were no good, chances are they have seen at least one movie in their life that they enjoyed!)
My easy way to remember this is to think that “The” = “That” – if you could substitute the word “that” for the word “the”, then “the” is correct. For example, “Did you enjoy that movie?” is the same as “Did you enjoy the movie?”
- Note that “the” can be used with both singular and plural nouns. For example, you can say “Did you enjoy the book I bought you for Christmas?” or “Did you enjoy the books I bought you for Christmas?”
When to use “a/an”
- Use “a” or “an” when referring to a non-specific item. For example, you might say “Let’s go to see a movie”. In this case, you are not talking about one specific movie – you could go to see any of a number of movies.
My easy way to remember this is to think that “A/An” = “Any” – if you could be talking about “any” movie or “any” book, then use “a/an”.
- Note that “a/an” are only used before singular nouns – when you are talking about one single thing. If you are referring to multiple items (plural nouns), then you can either use no article or you can use “some”. For example, you can say “Can you buy me apples?” or “Can you buy me some apples?”
Difference between “a” and “an”
“A” and “an” follow the same rules, except that “an” is only used before nouns which sound like they begin with a vowel (a, e, i, o & u). Both “a” and “an” can be used before a noun that begins with a “h”, depending on whether or not the speaker pronounces the “h”. For example, you can say either “it was an (h)istoric victory” or “it was a historic victory”, depending on how the word “historic” is pronounced. If the “h” is silent (or virtually silent), then you use “an” before it, as essentially the first letter of the word is “i”, which is a vowel. If the “h” is pronounced distinctively, then you use “a” before it. Some words that begin with a vowel actually sound like they begin with a consonant. For example, the word “one” is pronounced like it begins with a “w” (“won”) and the word “euro” sounds like it begins with a “y” (“your-oh”), so we would use “a” before both of these words, despite the fact that they begin with a vowel – “a one-man band” or “a euro”.
- People & places, like “John” or “Lithuania” are never preceded by “the” or “a/an”, except for the names of rivers, seas/oceans, canals, mountain ranges and people or places with a plural name, which are always preceded by “the”. Examples include “the Nile”, “the Atlantic”, “the Suez Canal”, “the Himalayas”, “the Netherlands” and “the Smiths”.
- Language names are never preceded by “the” or “a/an” – e.g. “I speak English”.
- Meal names are never preceded by “the” or “a/an” unless the meal name is preceded by an adjective – e.g. “I had breakfast” or “I had a big breakfast”.
- Career names (as opposed to the occupation name) are never preceded by “the” or “a/an” – e.g. “She is studying accountancy. When she is finished she will be an accountant.”
- With indefinite articles (“a/an”), uncountable nouns such as milk, rice, rain, etc., are treated as plural nouns, so you can say “I need to buy milk?” or “I need to buy some milk” but you cannot say “I need to buy a milk”.
NB: I plan to write a number of these blog posts over the coming weeks and months. My aim is to explain grammar rules as clearly and simply as possible. If you are still not clear on the rules for “a/an” and “the” having read the post, please let me know in the comments below and I will do my best to clarify. Also, if there are grammar topics you would like me to cover, please let me know in the comments or via email – I am happy to help!