Articles

English grammar – Articles (A/The)

Articles in English grammar can be confusing.

To be right 99% of the time, start at the top and follow this diagram:

Articles diagram

“Specific” means that both people know which noun.

“General” means that only one person, or neither person knows which noun.

Nouns are specific if:

  • they are unique (e.g. the sun, the moon)
  • they have a superlative (e.g. the biggest person, the tallest building)
  • the sentence explains which noun (e.g. do you remember the girl we met last night?
  • it is clear from context which noun, for example:
    • “Can you close the door?” <— This means "the closest door"
    • “I’m going to the library.” <— This means "the closest library"
  • you are mentioning them for the second time (e.g. I have a dog and a cat. The dog‘s name is Barney and the cat’s name is Dish.

If a countable/uncountable noun is specific, use THE.

If a countable noun is not specific, use A.

If an uncountable noun is not specific, use NO ARTICLE.

For example:

Imagine two people are having a conversation about a cat.

https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5337/9546216061_5e249302d9_b.jpg

If both people know which cat they are talking about, they say the cat. (a specific cat)

If only one person knows which cat they are talking about, they say a cat. (not a specific cat)

If neither of them knows which cat they are talking about, they say a cat. (not a specific cat) 

Practice exercises

Decide if we should say “A”, “The” or “No article” for each of these examples. If you’re not sure, click the picture – you’ll see a video which will explain the answer.

The answers are at the bottom of the page.

English grammar - Articles (A or THE)
English grammar – Articles (A or THE)

2.

English grammar - Articles
English grammar – Articles (Countable, not specific)

3. 

English grammar - Articles (uncountable nouns)
English grammar – Articles (uncountable nouns) (Uncountable, specific)

4.

English grammar - Articles
English grammar – Articles (Uncountable, specific)

 

5.

articles-1.jpg
English grammar – Articles (Uncountable, not specific)

Answers:

  1. The because “biggest” is a superlative. There is only one, so you know which octopus and I know which octopus.
  2. A because I know which restaurant, but you don’t.
  3. The because you know which water and I know which water (“from the teapot”) .
  4. The because you know which vodka and I know which vodka (“in this picture”).
  5. No article because we are talking in general. We’re not talking about specific milk.

 

Extra practice exercises

In each space, choose or the.

1 
 A:    Hey, I heard you got attacked by _______ tiger on holiday. Are you OK?
B:    Yeh, I’m OK – I used my karate skills.

2
A:    I bought ________ new cat at the weekend.
B:     Oh really? What kind of cat?

3
A:    Did you hear about the woman who wants to become ______ fattest person in the world?
B:     Yeh, she’s crazy.

4
A:    Did you bring ______ book I asked you about?
B:    Sure, it’s right here.

5
A:    Oh wow – what happened to your hair?
B:    I went to _______ crazy hairdresser when I was on holiday in Portugal.

6
A:    I went to ______ cool restaurant last night.
B:      Oh yeh? Which one?

7
A:      I didn’t sleep well last night because my cat brought ______ bird into ______ bed.
B:      Sounds like a nice present.

8
A:     She was _______ tallest person in her class at high school.
B:     I guess she’s always been tall.

9
A:     Last night I went to ________ restaurant, tripped over ________ table and fell into ________ group   of  businessmen.
B:     Haha I wish I had seen that!

10
A:     Do you remember when Michael went to ________ restaurant, tripped over ______ table and fell into _______ group of businessmen?
B:     Haha of course – I’m so happy I saw it happen!

Answers

1 – a because the first person only heard about the tiger attack. They don’t know exactly which tiger.

2 – a because the second person doesn’t know which kind of cat.

3 – the because “fattest” is a superlative. Superlatives (biggest, fattest, smallest) mean there is only one, so both people know which person.

4 – the because both people know which book they are talking about

5 – a because the first person doesn’t know exactly which hairdresser.

6 – a because the second person asks which one.

7 – a, the because the second person doesn’t know which bird, but they can guess which bed (the first person’s bed)

8 – the because “tallest” is a superlative. Superlatives (biggest, fattest, smallest) mean there is only one, so both people know which person.

9 – a, a, a because the second person was not at the restaurant, so they don’t know which restaurant, which table or which group of businessmen.

10 – the, the, the because the second person was at the restaurant, so they know which restaurant, which table and which group of businessmen.

Check out my YouTube videos for more examples:

Articles 1 thumbnail

Articles 2

Articles part 3

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