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Linguapress English Grammar

Indefinite & definite articles in English

Articles belong to the larger category of words known as determiners.  Unlike  other common types of determiner (numbers, demonstratives, quantifiers), articles cannot stand alone. They must be followed by a noun.

Article usage 

The basic rules:

Basically, the rules for using articles in English are quite simple:
If a noun is used in a "defined" or restricted context,  a determiner is required – most commonly the definite article.
When a noun is used in a non-defined or "generalizing" context, in some cases an indefinite article is required, in others no article at all.
 ► Definite article usage quiz. Check how much you know.  In which cases is a determiner required, impossible, or optional?

1. The Definite Article

How simple English is !!  There is only one definite article, and that is "the"; the only difficulty is knowing when to use it, and when it is not needed.

Before it is possible to choose the right article to place before a noun, it is first necessary to determine the nature or category of the noun that is being used.
As in other languages, nouns in English can be divided into two distinct categories, called:  count nouns and non-count nouns
1. Count nouns are nouns referring to items that can be counted, for example:
 One car, two pencils, three people, four guitarists, five hotels etc.
These nouns can be used in the singular or the plural

In the singular,
count nouns must be preceded by a determiner:
   The dog is happy.  (or This dog is happy, etc:  but not: Dog is happy )
   I'm reading my book  
or I'm reading the book ;  but notI'm reading book
In the plural, they may require a determiner, depending on context.

2. Non-count nouns are nouns referring to abstractions, substances or generalizations, or example:
 Oxygen, health, money, heat, astronomy

In the singular, non-count nouns do not require a determiner.
The plural is even easier: non-count nouns can NOT usually be used in the plural.
For more detail see Count & non-count nouns

THE BIG QUESTION concerns plural count nouns: Generalisation or not?

Sometimes it is not easy to decide if a plural noun is being used as a generalisation, or in a restrictive context : often the speaker or writer can choose. Look at these two sentences:
 a) Tomatoes are red
 b) The tomatoes are red.
In example (a), the writer is clearly implying a generalisation on the noun group
 "tomatoes":   i.e. All tomatoes .
In example (b), he is referring to a restricted or defined category of the noun:
"the tomatoes",  i.e. the tomatoes here in front of us are red; but some other tomatoes may be green or yellow .
In cases like these, one therefore has a choice; but the choice is not always completely free, as it often depends on context. Is it more important or more logical to imply a generalization, or a limitation? 
Deciding whether it is best to use an article in such cases is a skill that has to be mastered!

1.2  Articles and quantifiers

Although articles are determiners, and the general rules is "A noun is only preceded by one determiner", there are cases where the definite article can be preceded by a secondary determiner in the form of a quantifier.
 a) Some of the tomatoes are red
 b) Both of the children are very tired.
 c) Three of the machines were out of order.
For more on this see :  Numbers, Quantifiers, Some and Any, Each and every, Both either and neither, All and whole, and other related pages

2. The Indefinite Article

English has two indefinite articles, a and an
     a is used before nouns starting with a consonant or a semivowel
is used before nouns starting with a phonetic vowel

Examples:  a dog,  a cat,  an apple,  an orange, an uncle, but a university (because the word university starts with phonetic [ju:], which is not a vowel).

Indefinite articles can only be used with count nouns. They are used when a count noun in the singular refers to a non-specified or non defined entity.

a) There's a train (= unspecified) coming in 5 minutes. It's the train (= specified) for London.
b) Look! I can see a hotel over there !  (= a non-identified hotel) It's the hotel (= specified) we're looking for !.

There is no indefinite article in the plural. The word "some" is occasionally said to be a plural indefinite article, but really it is a quantifier (like many, few, etc.).
See dedicated page: Some and any

By definition, plural nouns referring to non-specified entities are generalisations, therefore need no article. Related pages:
Return to English Grammar index

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