Sunday, 10 April 2011


A, An or The?

When do we say "the dog" and when do we say "a dog"? (On this page we talk only about singular, countable nouns.)
The and a/an are called "articles". We divide them into "definite" and "indefinite" like this:

thea, an

We use "definite" to mean sure, certain. "Definite" is particular.
We use "indefinite" to mean not sure, not certain. "Indefinite" is general.
When we are talking about one thing in particular, we use the. When we are talking about one thing in general, we use a or an.
Think of the sky at night. In the sky we see 1 moon and millions of stars. So normally we would say:
  • I saw the moon last night.
  • I saw a star last night.
Look at these examples:

thea, an
  • The capital of France is Paris.
  • I have found the book that I lost.
  • Have you cleaned the car?
  • There are six eggs in the fridge.
  • Please switch off the TV when you finish.
  • I was born in a town.
  • John had an omelette for lunch.
  • James Bond ordered a drink.
  • We want to buy an umbrella.
  • Have you got a pen?

Of course, often we can use the or a/an for the same word. It depends on the situation, not the word. Look at these examples:
  • We want to buy an umbrella. (Any umbrella, not a particular umbrella.)
  • Where is the umbrella? (We already have an umbrella. We are looking for our umbrella, a particular umbrella.)


    There is no article:
  • with names of countries (if singular)
    Germany is an important economic power.
    He's just returned from Zimbabwe.
    (But: I'm visiting the United States next week.)
  • with the names of languages
    French is spoken in Tahiti.
    English uses many words of Latin origin.
    Indonesian is a relatively new language.
  • with the names of meals.
    Lunch is at midday.
    Dinner is in the evening.
    Breakfast is the first meal of the day.
  • with people's names (if singular):
    John's coming to the party.
    George King is my uncle.
    (But: we're having lunch with the Morgans tomorrow.)
  • with titles and names:
    Prince Charles is Queen Elizabeth's son.
    President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
    Dr. Watson was Sherlock Holmes' friend.
    (But: the Queen of England, the Pope.)
  • After the 's possessive case:
    His brother's car.
    Peter's house.
  • with professions:
    Engineering is a useful career.
    He'll probably go into medicine.
  • with names of shops:
    I'll get the card at Smith's.
    Can you go to Boots for me?
  • with years:
    1948 was a wonderful year.
    Do you remember 1995?
  • With uncountable nouns:
    Rice is the main food in Asia.
    Milk is often added to tea in England.
    War is destructive.
  • with the names of individual mountains, lakes and islands:
    Mount McKinley is the highest mountain in Alaska.
    She lives near Lake Windermere.
    Have you visited Long Island?
  • with most names of towns, streets, stations and airports:
    Victoria Station is in the centre of London.
    Can you direct me to Bond Street?
    She lives in Florence.
    They're flying from Heathrow.
  • in some fixed expressions, for example:
by car
by train
by air
on foot
on holiday
on air (in broadcasting)

at school
at work
at University
in church
in prison
in bed

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