For non-native (and some native) speakers of English, mastering the use of articles — “the” and “a/an” — can be a difficult task, so here is a short primer.
Articles are adjectives inasmuch as they modify nouns, but their role is less descriptive than determinative, which is why they are also called determiners. And what they determine is whether the noun that follows them is specific or non-specific; definite or indefinite.
A definite article, which invariably takes the form of “the,” precedes a noun that the writer or speaker wishes to distinguish from its class, as in, “I want to buy the shirt” — not any shirt, but, let us say, the one that fits you perfectly and complements the color of your eyes. This is why the second occurrence of a noun is typically preceded by a definite article, now that it is known to the reader or hearer, as in “A walk would do me good, I thought. But having been bitten by a rabid Cocker Spaniel in the course of my stroll, I can only describe the walk as a disaster.”
Indefinite articles, which take the form of “a/an” (more on this below), can refer to any noun within a class. If you have no particular shirt in mind when you enter Macy’s, the indefinite article “a” is in order, as in “I’m looking for a shirt.” The class can be narrowed through the introduction of qualifiers without precluding the use of an indefinite article. You can, for example, look for a striped shirt or an extra-large shirt, but sooner or later you will likely want to differentiate your choice, as in “The shirt was a good buy.”
The Limits of Indefinite Articles
While “the” can be used with both singular and plural nouns (e.g., “The exam was easy, unlike the exams I took last semester.”), “a/an” cannot be used with plurals, though an indefinite article can precede a collective noun (e.g., “An egg would be good, but a clutch of eggs would be better.”).
Another limitation of “a/an” relates to uncountable nouns (i.e., nouns that cannot be preceded by a number), such as “research,” “furniture,” or “weather.” You would not say, “I need an information,” though it would be perfectly alright to say, “I need the information.” If, however, you are referring to an uncountable noun in a nonspecific way, you can dispense with articles altogether, as in “Information is overabundant today.”
The Omission of Articles (Sometimes)
If uncountable nouns can stand alone in some circumstances, so, too, can countable nouns. When the latter represent their class as a whole, the writer or speaker can choose to use a definite article, an indefinite article, or no article at all. For example, while you could say, “The warthog is a homely animal or a leader must be willing to take risks,” the same thoughts can be expressed by saying “Warthogs are homely animals or leaders must be willing to take risks.”
Some nouns are never accompanied by articles when used generically, including languages, meals, sports, and disciplines, as in “Bob spoke French at dinner and played squash regularly, but his true love was physics.” Once qualified, however, these nouns require articles, as in “Bob spoke a crude form of French at the dinners hosted by his mother, while the squash he regularly played was little better, and only in the physics of his dreams did he enjoy success.”
Most proper nouns (i.e., unique entities), including virtually all personal names and many corporate ones, such as Apple, Inc. or Amazon.com, Inc., do not call for articles, but, as often happens in English, there are notable exceptions. This can be befuddling at times. Individual mountains do not require articles before their names but mountain ranges do (e.g., “Mount Everest can be found in the Himalayas”), and while you can visit the Republic of France, you would never visit the France. The Times of London, like other newspapers, is preceded by a definite article, but Broadcasting House, the home of the BBC, is not. Hotels are generally prefaced by “the,” as in “the Waldorf Astoria,” but not supermarkets — no one goes to the Wegmans unless one is referring to a particular Wegmans, as in “the Wegmans on Route 1.” While North and South Carolina are article-free, the Carolinas, like other pluralized proper nouns, should be preceded by a definite article. Similarly, while you can call on Mary and John Smith, you should visit the Smiths, unless you intend to make the acquaintance of everyone who shares this surname.
Differentiating “a” and “an”
If this is not confusing enough, remember that the indefinite article has two forms whose use is determined by the beginning sound of the noun it modifies. Words that begin with the sounds of vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) are preceded by “an.” Words that begin with the sounds of consonants are preceded by “a.” And so, while most consonants take “a” and most verbs take “an,” your ear must ultimately guide you, as in this example: “A university should give its students at least an hour for lunch.”
This is not the last word on articles, but it is a beginning or the beginning you may be seeking. Do not worry if you sometimes get articles confused as you continue to hone your English-language skills. Perhaps learning the use of articles is tricky because you can actually get your basic point across without them.