Thompson Rivers University

How and When to Use Articles

  Posted on: June 24, 2015

For native English speakers the use of articles is second nature. Unfortunately, for those learning the language, it can be a difficult concept to grasp. Students whose first language does not use articles – such as Korea or Russia – may find this concept especially difficult.

In English, the writer has four options to choose from: a, an, the, or no article.

A and an are indefinite articles and are used when referring to a noun in general, and sometimes when it is the first time that you are referring to a particular noun. An is used when the noun following the article begins with a vowel or vowel sound.


Sally walked into the furniture store and picked out a bed for her new room.

After moving into my new apartment, a neighbour came over to welcome me to the building. She offered me a pie, and the neighbour became my first new friend in this city.

An apple is a great snack on a hot day.

The is the definite article in English. Some common uses of the are when the noun is one that you have mentioned before and are now referring to specifically, when the noun is assumed to be the only one in a particular place, when you define or identify a specific person, when you are referring to a specific group of people, when you are referring to a proper noun, or when referring to some countries.


The chair will fit wonderfully with our dining room décor.

The president of the United States travelled to China this week.

The elderly residents of the facility took a day trip to a nearby city.

The Empire State Building is an iconic landmark in New York City.

On top of having to decide between a/an or the, there are certain situations where no article is necessary. To determine this, think about whether the noun is one you can count or one you cannot count. Take, for example, the word “paper.” “Paper” is a noun that cannot be counted, so you do not need to use an article in most cases. An exception is if you are referring to a particular example of paper, in which case you would use the. You never use a/an with nouns that cannot be counted.


(No article) Paper was laying all over the desk in my office; however, I needed that work-space so I tidied up and organized the paper.

She put (no article) gravy on top of the French fries to make poutine.

Before deciding which article to use, think about whether the noun you are working with is something general or something specific, or whether it is something you can count or something you cannot count. Then you can decide on which article (if any) to use, accordingly.


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