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Nouns and Articles: Articles: Four Basic Questions

One of the most difficult areas for nonnative speakers of English is choosing among the articles a, an, and the and the zero article (no article at all). Languages vary enormously in their representation of the concepts conveyed by English articles.

Some languages have no article forms at all (Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Farsi, Russian, and Bantu languages like Swahili). Some have no indefinite article (Arabic), and others have no definite article (Turkish, Hindi). And even languages that have both definite and indefinite articles (Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, German) use them differently from the way they are used in English. This causes difficulties with the selection of articles.

You can ask four basic questions about a noun to decide whether to use an article and, if so, which article to use.


     KEY POINTS



     Articles at a Glance: Four Basic Questions



Asking the questions

1. Is the noun a proper noun?
  A proper noun names a specific person, place, or thing and begins with a capital letter.
Yes    Use the zero article (no article) with a singular proper noun. Use the with a plural proper noun.
No    It is a common noun. See question 2.

2. Does the common noun make a specific reference to a unique person, object, or thing that is known to both writer and reader as unique?
Do the reader and the writer share the knowledge of one specific or unique reference?
Yes    Use the.
No    The common noun is used nonspecifically. See question 3.

3. Is the noun uncountable?
  A noun like information is uncountable: we cannot say one information, two informations, many informations, and so on.
Yes    Do not use a or an. Use the zero article for a generalization, or use a singular quantity word if the generalization is limited, such as some, a little, much.
No    The noun is countable and has singular and plural forms. See question 4.

4. Is the noun singular or plural?
Singular    Use a or an. Use a before a consonant sound: a bird, a career, a step. Use an before a vowel sound: an apple, an egg, an honest man (but a house, a ukelele).
Plural    Use the zero article or a plural quantity word: some, a few, many, several.
 
Using the Four Questions - A Sample

You can use the questions to decide which article, if any, to use with the noun jacket by considering the following sentence:
Sample    The motorcyclist I saw on the street was carrying [article] jacket and wearing black leather pants.
 
1. Is the noun a proper noun?
No    Go to question 2.
 
2. Does the common noun make a specific reference to a unique person, object, or thing that is known to both writer and reader as unique?
No    It is not identified to the reader in the same way that the motorcyclist is. That is one specified and unique cyclist defined in the written text - the one "I saw on the street." Go to question 3.
 
3. Is the noun uncountable?
No    We can say one jacket, two jackets. Go to question 4.
 
4. Is the noun singular or plural?
Singular    The next word begins with a consonant sound, so use a.
Sample    The motorcyclist I saw on the street was carrying a jacket and wearing black leather pants.
 
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See also
Categories of Nouns
Noun Plurals and Possessives
Uncountable Nouns
Conventions of Article Use
Article Specificity
Proper Nouns and Articles