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
Consider the following examples:
- Let’s go see the movie.
- 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 user (vowels making a “y” consonant sound)
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
The Rules of “The”
An eager cat
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 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.
Using Both Forms For Clarity
I played the chess tournament champion.
I am familiar with the Russian alphabet.
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…
© G.A. Robinson 2002-2019