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A Guide to the Definite/Indefinite Articles

In English, the term “article” refers to a specific type of adjective that is used to modify nouns. There are two types of articles; definite and indefinite. The indefinite article is “a/an.” The definite article is “the.” Each type is used in specific situations in order to communicate different concepts. Using the wrong article can change the meaning of a sentence.

Consider the following examples:
  1. Let’s go see the movie.
  2. Let’s go see a movie.

By using the definite article, the first sentence is referring to a specific movie. By using the indefinite article, the second sentence is referring to any movie. In general, the definite article should only be used in conjunction with so-called “non-count” nouns, while the indefinite article should be used with “count” nouns. Count nouns refer to one of many, such as a glass of milk or a piece of pie; non-count nouns can only be one thing, such as the house or the Pacific Ocean.

The Rules of “A/An”

The indefinite article has two forms, “a” and “an.” Generally, “a” can be used to modify any noun that starts with a consonant, while “an” is used to modify any noun that starts with a vowel. There are notable exceptions. “A” is used with vowels that produce a consonant sound, such as the “y” sound of the word “unique.” “An” is used with words that have a silent “h,” such as “honor.”
Occasionally, the word “historical” can be used in conjunction with “an.”

Here are a few examples:

A cat
An eagle
A house
An hour
A user (vowels making a “y” consonant sound)
A youth
An undertaking

Sometimes, the noun that is being modified will be preceded by a separate adjective. In this case, the form of the indefinite article will be determined by the adjective.

A bald eagle
An eager cat

The Rules of “The”

The definite article is used to indicate a particular object, person or place. It is not always needed in a sentence. However, it is required when the writer is referring to certain proper nouns, especially in connection with geography. Bodies of water traditionally require the definite article:

the Pacific Ocean
the Mississippi River
the Persian Gulf

Geographical regions, including deserts, also require this article:

The Midwest
The Mojave Desert

However, other nouns should never have “the” placed in front of them, including the names of languages, academic subjects or sports.

We studied history.
I speak Russian.
I play chess.

The only exceptions to this rule are when the sentence is referring to a specific object, event or person:

We studied the history of China.
I played the chess tournament champion.
I am familiar with the Russian alphabet.

Using Both Forms For Clarity

Finally, a writer may choose to first introduce a concept using the indefinite article and then switch to the definite article. For example:

This paper is based on a study conducted at George Washington University.

The study revealed the following findings…

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