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What Are Articles? Learning About A, An and The

written by: Meetu • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

Articles are just three in number, but do a lot of work in the language. Learning articles is not tough for ESL students and can be learnt by understanding the rules of usage. Articles are of two types: Definite (‘The’) and Indefinite (‘A’ and ‘An’).

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    Rules of Usage

    Mr. Sharma – “Where is Tom?”

    Ms. Sharma – “In the Kitchen.”

    Mr. Sharma – “Tell him, I have bought a shirt, a ball and an umbrella for him”

    Mr. Sharma – “Let’s turn off the light and give him a surprise”

    In the above piece of conversation, three words are italicized. Did you also notice that these words are preceding nouns? These italicized words are articles, and are used before Nouns.

    Articles are of two types: Definite Article and Indefinite Articles. The definite article is “the,” and the indefinite articles are “a” and “an.”

    Rules of usage are briefly discussed below:

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    Definite Article – "The"

    • “The” is a definite article and is used to refer to specific or particular person or thing.

    Example: The little girl was crying. (In this sentence, we are talking of a specific girl.)

    • “The” can also be used refer to something that has already been referred to if it is clear from the context;

    Example: The book you want is not available. (Which book? The one that you want.)

    • The article “The” is also used when a singular noun represents the whole class.

    Example: The cow is revered as a holy animal in India.

    • The article “The” is also used before certain proper nouns.

    Rivers – The Ganga is a holy river of India.

    Deserts – The Gobi desert is a cold desert.

    Group of Islands – The West Indies are beautiful islands.

    The same way it is used before the names of Mountain Ranges, certain Books (The i, The Gita) names of Canals (The Suez Canal), names of Oceans and Seas (The Pacific Ocean), names of musical instruments (The flute)

    • The is also used before names of unique things;

    Example: The sun, The moon

    • It is also used before a Proper noun when it is qualified by an adjective.

    Example: The great playwright Shakespeare

    • Before Superlative form of adjectives;

    Example: The tallest boy in the class should sit at the back.

    • Before Adverbs in Comparative form;

    Example: The healthier the better.

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    Indefinite Articles – “A” and “An”

    • The indefinite article is used to represent one (in its numerical sense).

    Example: Give me a pen.

    • In the same sense as any, but requiring to be specific;

    Example: Is there a hotel near by? (There are many hotels in the city, but is there one nearby?)

    Paris is an interesting city.

    • To use a proper noun as a common noun;

    Example: A Mahatma Gandhi came to his rescue.

    • To introduce something for the first time;

    Example: This is a cat.

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    “A” or “An”

    The problem that ESL students usually face is when to use “A” and when to use “An.”

    • “An” is used before nouns beginning with vowel sounds.

    Example: an umbrella, an hour, an elephant, an event

    • “A” is used before nouns beginning with consonant sounds.

    Example: a banana, a cat, a dog

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    No Article

    At times articles are not used at all. Some of such cases are:

    • When a statement is made generally.

    Example: I do not like apples.

    Children like chocolates.

    • Names of countries, states, cities, academic subjects, languages, names of relations.

    Example: I am visiting London.

    Ron is studying Geography.

    Reena speaks good English.

    Mother is not at home.

    (The exception to the rule is names of countries using the word republic or state; The United States of America)

    The best way to learn usage of articles is a lot of practice. The difference in the usage of “A” and “An” can also be understood by speaking the noun aloud.

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    Teaching Articles

    Classroom activities can be taken up to practice the same. Some suggested activities are:

    • Complete the sentences;

    • Edit a paragraph;

    • Supply articles in a paragraph from which articles have been deleted;

    • Try speaking a paragraph without articles. (This sends the class roaring, they just love it)

    Reference: High School English Grammar & Composition – Wren & Martin