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A/an and the

from English Grammar Today

A/an and the: meaning

A/an and the are articles. They are a type of determiner and they go before a noun.

A/an before a noun shows that what is referred to is not already known to the speaker, listener, writer and/or reader (it is the indefinite article):

Do you have a car?

A:

Do you live in a house?

B:

No, actually, I live in an apartment.

The before a noun shows that what is referred to is already known to the speaker, listener, writer and/or reader (it is the definite article):

Where did we park the car? (The speaker and the listener know what car is being referred to.)

We had to paint the apartment before we sold it. (The speaker and the listener know what apartment is being referred to.)

The makes a noun specific.

Compare

Have you been to an ice rink?

Have you ever been to any ice rink? (an doesn’t make the noun ice rink specific)

Have you been to the ice rink?

The speaker and listener know the ice rink which is being referred to (e.g. the one in their town/the local one). The makes the noun ice rink specific.

Not specific

Specific (‘the one you and I know’)

Would you like an apple?

Would you like to try the apple pie?

Do you have a cat?

Have you seen the cat?

When do we use a and when do we use an?

In speaking, we use a /ə/ before a consonant sound:

a car a house a big truck a wheel a grey day

Warning:

Some words that begin with a vowel letter in writing have a consonant sound:

/ə ju:ˈnaɪtɪd …/ /ə ju:niˈvɜ:sɪti/ /ə wʌn …/

a united group a university a one-year-old child

We use an /ən/ before a vowel sound:

an apple an old shoe an orchestra an umbrella

Warning:

Some words that begin with a consonant letter in writing have a vowel sound:

/ən aʊə(r)/ an hour

/ən empi:θri: …/ an MP3 player

How do we pronounce the?

We pronounce the in two ways depending on whether the sound which comes after the is a vowel or a consonant:

/ði:/ before vowel sounds

/ði: eksɪt/ the exit

/ði: æpəl/ the apple

/ðə/ before consonant sounds

/ðə ti:m/ the team

/ðə ju:niən/ the union

When do we use articles?

A/an and the with types of nouns

Countable nouns

We only use a/an with singular countable nouns:

I have a sister and a brother.

That was an excellent meal.

We can use the with singular and plural countable nouns:

The lion roared.

The tree fell.

The lions roared.

The trees fell.

Uncountable nouns

We don’t use a/an before uncountable nouns:

Could I have rice instead of potatoes with my fish?

Not: Could I have a rice

I hope we have nice weather.

Not: I hope we have a nice weather.

We can use the before uncountable nouns when they refer to a specific example:

The rice we bought in the Thai shop is much better than the supermarket rice.

The weather was awful last summer.

To talk about an individual quantity or more than one quantity of an uncountable noun, we use expressions such as a bit of, a piece of or a [specific measure] of:

That’s an amazing bit of news.

Not: That’s an amazing news.

We just made a big bowl of pasta.

Not: We just made a pasta.

Could I have a litre of milk, please?

Not: Could I have a milk, please?

General nouns

We only use the with general plural nouns when we are referring to a specific set within a general class of people or things.

Compare

Books are so important in my life.

I mean all books in general.

The books were all over the floor.

I mean specific books (that you and I know).

We can make general nouns specific by using an article and adding more information after the noun.

Life is wonderful. (life in general)

The life of a soldier is full of danger. (specifically the life of soldiers, not life in general)

She had a life of hard work. (one specific life)

History sometimes repeats itself. (history in general)

He wrote a book on the history of boxing. (specifically the history of boxing)

The country has a history of going to war. (one specific history of one country)

Inventions, musical instruments and cultural institutions

When we talk in general about inventions, musical instruments or cultural institutions (such as the cinema, the theatre, the circus, the opera, the ballet), we often use the:

The computer must be the greatest invention ever. (The computer as an invention in general, not a specific computer)

The violin sounds different to the viola.

I love a night at the opera.

No article before determiners (any, some, my, this)

We don’t use an article with other words that specify a noun (determiner), e.g. any, some, my, her, this, that:

I love my job.

Not: I love the my job.

Does she want this book?

Not: Does she want the this book?

The with things that are universally known

We use the with things known to everyone (the sun, the stars, the moon, the earth, the planet) because they are a part of our physical environment or part of the natural world:

The earth moves around the sun.

We lay on the grass and watched the stars.

The with everyday things

We use the with things that we know as part of our daily lives. The does not refer to particular things in this context.

I don’t buy the newspaper these days. It’s free on the Internet. (newspapers in general)

They always take the train. (trains in general)

Jobs and professions

When we talk about a person’s job, we use a:

She’s a gardener.

He’s an ambulance driver.

Places

We use the with mountain ranges and some mountains (the Alps, the Eiger), groups of islands (the West Indies), rivers (the Danube), deserts (the Gobi Desert), seas (the Black Sea), geographical regions or habitats (the Amazon rainforest), motorways (the M42), the names of some countries (the People’s Republic of China).

We don’t usually use articles with individual mountains or lakes when the name includes Mount or Lake: Mount Fuji, Lake Victoria. We don’t use articles with continents (Asia), countries (Romania), towns (Edinburgh), and streets (Lombard Street).

The with groups within society

When we talk about particular groups or people within society, we use the + adjective:

I think the rich should pay more tax and that the poor shouldn’t pay any.

The young need to be encouraged and supported in society.

The with dates

When we say a specific date, we use the, but when we write it, we don’t use the:

Speaking: ‘I’ll see you on the twenty fourth of May.’

Writing: I’ll see you on 24th May.

When we talk about months, we don’t use the:

My birthday is in September.

May is my favourite month of all.

When we talk about seasons in general, we can use either in or in the. In without the is often used in more formal or literary contexts:

These birds arrive in Britain in summer, and leave as the winter begins.

In the summer, we usually go to the mountains.

We rarely get snow in the winter.

When we talk about a specific season, we use the:

The winter of 1947 was one of the coldest in Britain.

We’ll definitely visit you in the summer. (meaning next summer)

The with Internet, radio and newspaper but mostly not with TV

I looked it up on the Internet.

Not: on internet

She was on the radio once.

Not: on radio

Did you see that story about parrots in the newspaper?

Not: in newspaper

There’s usually nothing on TV. (TV means television)

There’s usually nothing on the television. (less common)

The with go to, be at, be in hospital, school, prison

When we talk about the activity that happens in a building rather than about the building itself, we don’t use the.

Compare

without the

with the

She didn’t want to be in hospital but she was too ill to go home. (in hospital means being there as a patient)

She didn’t want to be in the hospital (in the hospital means being in the building)

When I was at school, we didn’t have computers. (at school means being there as a student)

When I was at the school (at the school means being in the building)

We don’t use the with bed when we go there to sleep:

I always go to bed at eleven o’clock.

Not: I always go to the bed

We don’t use the before work when we talk about the place where we do our job:

They go to work at 8 am every morning.

Not: They go to the work

Possessive expressions

We don’t use the to refer to an individual’s behaviour or to parts of an individual’s body:

He spends most of his free time playing computer games.

Not: He spends most of the free time

I must wash my hands.

Not: I must wash the hands.

This, that and articles

We can use this instead of a/an or the, and these instead of zero article or some when we tell stories and jokes to create a sense of the present:

[beginning of a joke]

There was this chicken who wanted to cross the road … (compare There was a chicken who wanted to cross the road …)

These tourists came into the restaurant once and they ordered fifteen Irish coffees. (compare Some tourists came into the restaurant once and they ordered …)

Spoken English:

In informal speaking, we can use that as an alternative to the in stories when we refer to something familiar or known to the listener. That highlights the fact that the thing being referred to is known to the speaker and listener:

A:

Where did you buy your skirt? I really like it.

B:

I got it at that new shop next to Green’s Hotel. (compare I got it at the new shop next to Green’s Hotel.)

A/an and the: typical errors

  • We don’t use the with plural nouns when we are referring to things in general:

We have to protect wild animals. (referring to wild animals in general)

Not: the wild animals.

  • We don’t use the when we refer in general to something abstract or uncountable:

I love Japanese food. (all Japanese food/Japanese food in general)

Not: I love the Japanese food.

  • We don’t use the when the noun is not known to the listener or reader:

Last Sunday, we saw a film called ‘Nightmare’. (The speaker doesn’t think that the listener knows of this film.)

Not: … we saw the film called ‘Nightmare’.

  • We don’t use the instead of a possessive pronoun:

The police asked us to put our hands up.

Not: The police asked us to put the hands up.

  • We don’t use an article with go to bed:

I go to bed at eleven most nights.

Not: I go to the bed at eleven most nights.

(“A/an and the” from English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press. Need grammar practice? Try English Grammar Today with Workbook.)
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