What Are Articles in English Grammar? - Definition, Use & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of Articles
  • 0:37 Definite Article
  • 1:03 Indefinite Articles
  • 1:33 Article Usage with Examples
  • 3:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Lyndsay Knowles
Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

In this lesson, we will explore three very small but important words in the English language: the articles a, an and the. These are words that you use in almost every sentence that you speak or write. Learn about the significance of articles, when to use them and some examples.

Definition of Articles

An article is a word used to modify a noun, which is a person, place, object, or idea. Technically, an article is an adjective, which is any word that modifies a noun. Usually adjectives modify nouns through description, but articles are used instead to point out or refer to nouns. There are two different types of articles that we use in writing and conversation to point out or refer to a noun or group of nouns: definite and indefinite articles.

Definite Article

Let's begin by looking at the definite article. This article is the word 'the,' and it refers directly to a specific noun or groups of nouns. For example:

  • the freckles on my face
  • the alligator in the pond
  • the breakfast burrito on my plate

Each noun or group of nouns being referred to - in these cases freckles, alligator, and breakfast burrito - is direct and specific.

Indefinite Articles

Indefinite articles are the words 'a' and 'an.' Each of these articles is used to refer to a noun, but the noun being referred to is not a specific person, place, object, or idea. It can be any noun from a group of nouns. For example:

  • a Mercedes from the car lot
  • an event in history

In each case, the noun is not specific. The Mercedes could be any Mercedes car available for purchase, and the event could be any event in the history of the world.

Article Usage with Examples

Properly using a definite article is fairly straightforward, but it can be tricky when you are trying to figure out which indefinite article to use. The article choice depends on the sound at the beginning of the noun that is being modified. There is a quick and easy way to remember this.

If the noun that comes after the article begins with a vowel sound, the appropriate indefinite article to use is 'an.' A vowel sound is a sound that is created by any vowel in the English language: 'a,' 'e,' 'i,' 'o,' 'u,' and sometimes 'y' if it makes an 'e' or 'i' sound. For example:

  • an advertisement on the radio (this noun begins with 'a,' which is a vowel)
  • an element on the periodic table (this noun begins with 'e,' which is also a vowel)

If the noun that comes after the article begins with a consonant sound, the appropriate indefinite article to use is 'a.' A consonant sound is a sound that comes from the letters that are not the vowels in the English language. For example:

  • a tire on my car (the noun the article modifies begins with 't,' which is a consonant)
  • a baboon at the zoo (the noun the article modifies begins with 'b,' which is also a consonant)

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Additional Activities

Applying Your Knowledge

In this lesson, you have learned what definite and indefinite articles are and when to use them. Using one or more of the activities below, try and expand your knowledge and solidify your understanding of the concepts.

  1. Quiz Yourself: Write down as many English noun words as you can. Aim for at least 20, and make sure that several of them start with vowels, or with a silent H. Close your eyes and point at the paper at random 5 times. For each of the words you pointed to, write a definite article before them. For all of the others, write indefinite articles, paying attention to the rules for using a and an. Check back on this lesson when you've finished to see how you did!

Sample Words: horse, uniform, brain, egg, bed, potato, zebra, yak, xylophone, apple, mask

  1. Compare and Contrast: Do you speak any languages besides English? If so, this prompt is for you! Do some research to see if your other language(s) use definite or indefinite articles. How are the rules for articles different in your language(s) from the rules in English? How many articles are there in your language(s)? If there are none, is there another grammatical mechanism to indicate general or specific nouns?
  2. Become the Teacher: Once you feel confident that you understand this lesson, find someone else to teach it to! This can be a classmate, friend, parent, sibling, or anyone else in your life. Explain the concepts to them as clearly as you can, and be ready to answer any questions they might have.

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