are the definite article the
and the indefinite articles a
(and sometimes some
). Use of the definite article implies that the speaker assumes the listener knows the identity of the noun's referent
(because it is obvious, because it is common knowledge, or because it was mentioned in the same sentence or an earlier sentence). Use of an indefinite article implies that the speaker assumes the listener does not have to know the identity of the referent. In some
no article is used.
Articles are a special case of determiner in English; for information about this class as a whole, see English determiners.
Use of articles
The rules of English grammar
require that in most cases a noun
, or more generally a noun phrase
, must be "completed" with a determiner
to clarify what the referent
of the noun phrase is.
[Greenbaum, Sidney (1996) The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-861250-8]
The most common determiners are the article the
, which specify the presence or absence of definiteness
of the noun. Other possible determiners include words like this
– see English determiners
. There are also cases where no determiner is required, as in the sentence John likes fast cars
The definite article the is used when the referent of the noun phrase is assumed to be unique or known from the context. For example, in the sentence The boy with glasses was looking at the moon, it is assumed that in the context the reference can only be to one boy and one moon. However, the definite article is not used:
with generic nouns (plural or uncountable): cars have accelerators, happiness is contagious, referring to cars in general and happiness in general (compare the happiness I felt yesterday, specifying particular happiness);
with many : John, France, London, etc.
The indefinite article a (before a consonant sound) or an (before a vowel sound) is used only with singular, countable nouns. It indicates that the referent of the noun phrase is one unspecified member of a class. For example, the sentence An ugly man was smoking a pipe does not refer to any specifically known ugly man or pipe.
No article is used with plural or uncountable nouns when the referent is indefinite (just as in the generic definite case described above). However, in such situations, the determiner some is often added (or any in negative contexts and in many questions). For example:
There are apples in the kitchen or There are some apples in the kitchen;
We do not have information or We do not have any information;
Would you like tea? or Would you like some tea? or Would you like any tea?
Additionally, articles are not normally used:
in noun phrases that contain other determiners ( my house, this cat, America's history), although one can combine articles with certain other determiners, as in the many issues, such a child (see ).
with pronouns ( he, nobody), although again certain combinations are possible (as the one, the many, the few).
preceding noun phrases consisting of a clause or infinitive phrase ( what you've done is very good, to surrender is to die).
If it is required to be concise, e.g. in , signs, labels, and notes, articles are often omitted along with certain other . For example, rather than The mayor was attacked, a newspaper headline might say just Mayor attacked.
For more information on article usage, see the sections and below. For more cases where no article is used, see Zero article in English.
In most cases, the article is the first word of its noun phrase
, preceding all other adjectives and modifiers.
[Disterheft, Dorothy (2004) Advanced Grammar. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice-Hall ISBN 0-13-048820-8]
The little old red bag held a very big surprise.
There are a few exceptions, however:
Certain determiners, such as all, both, half, double, precede the definite article when used in combination ( all the team, both the girls, half the time, double the amount).
The determiner such and exclamative what precede the indefinite article ( such an idiot, what a day!).
Adjectives qualified by too, so, as and how generally precede the indefinite article: too great a loss, so hard a problem, as delicious an apple as I have ever tasted, I know how pretty a girl she is.
When adjectives are qualified by quite (particularly when it means "fairly"), the word quite (but not the adjective itself) often precedes the indefinite article: quite a long letter.
See also and Determiners and adjectives.
The only definite article
is the word the
, denoting person(s) or thing(s) already mentioned, under discussion, implied, or otherwise presumed familiar to the listener or reader. The
is the most commonly used word in the English language.
"The" can be used with both singular and plural nouns, with nouns of any gender, and with nouns that start with any letter. This is different from many other languages which have different articles for different genders and/or numbers.
In most dialects "the" is pronounced as (with the voiced dental fricative
followed by schwa
) when followed by a consonant sound. In many dialects, including Received Pronunciation
(standard educated speech of England), the pronunciation is used before words beginning with vowel sounds.
The emphatic form of the word is (like thee
) – see Weak and strong forms in English
In some Northern England of English, the is pronounced (with a dental t) or as a glottal stop, usually written in eye dialect as ⟨t⟩; in some dialects it reduces to nothing. This is known as definite article reduction.
In dialects that do not have the voiced dental fricative , the is pronounced with the voiced dental plosive, as in or ).
are common developments from the same Old English
system. Old English had a definite article se
, in the masculine gender
(feminine), and þæt
(neuter). In Middle English
these had all merged
, the ancestor of the Modern English
The principles of the use of the definite article in English are described above under . (The word the
is also used with
, in phrases like, the sooner the better
, and, we were all the happier for it
; this form of the definite article has a somewhat different etymology from other uses of the definite article. (See the Wiktionary entry
An area in which the use or non-use of the is sometimes problematic is with geographic names. Names of rivers, seas, mountain ranges, deserts, island groups and the like are generally used with the definite article ( the Rhine, the North Sea, the Alps, the Sahara, the Hebrides). Names of continents, islands, countries, regions, administrative units, cities and towns mostly do not take the article ( Europe, Skye, Germany, Scandinavia, Yorkshire, Madrid). However, there are certain exceptions:
Countries and regions whose names are modified common nouns, or are derived from island groups, take the article: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic, the Middle East, the Philippines, the Seychelles. Note also the Netherlands.
Certain countries whose names derive from mountain ranges, rivers, deserts, etc. are sometimes used with an article ( the Lebanon, the Sudan),
[Swan, Michael How English Works, p. 25] but this usage is declining, although the Gambia is the recommended name of that country. Since the independence of Ukraine (formerly sometimes called the Ukraine), most style guides have advised dropping the article [ Ukraine or "the Ukraine"? by Andrew Gregorovich, infoukes.com] (in some other languages there is a similar issue involving prepositions). Use of the Argentine for Argentina is now old-fashioned.
Some names include an article for historical reasons, such as The Bronx, or to reproduce the native name (The Hague).
Names beginning with a common noun followed by of take the article, as in the Isle of Wight (compare Christmas Island). The same applies to names of institutions: Cambridge University, but the University of Cambridge.
Abbreviations for "the" and "that"
Since "the" is one of the most frequently used words in English, at various times short abbreviations for it have been found:
Barred thorn: the earliest abbreviation, it is used in manuscripts in the Old English language. It is the letter þ with a bold horizontal stroke through the ascender, and it represents the word þæt, meaning "the" or "that" (neuter nom. / acc.)
þͤ and þͭ (þ with a superscript e or t) appear in Middle English manuscripts for "þe" and "þat" respectively.
yͤ and yͭ are developed from þͤ and þͭ and appear in Early Modern manuscripts and in print (see Ye form below).
Occasional proposals have been made by individuals for an abbreviation. In 1916, Legros & Grant included in their classic printers' handbook Typographical Printing-Surfaces, a proposal for a letter similar to Ħ to represent "Th", thus abbreviating "the" to ħe.
[ Missed Opportunity for Ligatures] Why they did not propose reintroducing to the English language " þ", for which blocks were already available for use in Icelandic texts, or the yͤ form is unknown.
In 2013 an Australian restaurateur named Paul Mathis proposed Ћ, which he nicknamed "The Tap",
as a symbol for "the." This symbol is the same as the Serbian Cyrillic letter Ћ (Tshe).
In Middle English, the
(þe) was frequently abbreviated as a þ
with a small e
above it, similar to the abbreviation for that
, which was a þ
with a small t
above it. During the latter Middle English
and Early Modern English
periods, the letter thorn
(þ) in its common script, or cursive
, form came to resemble a y
shape. As such the use of a y
with an e
above it () as an abbreviation became common. This can still be seen in reprints of the 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible
in places such as Romans 15:29, or in the Mayflower Compact
. Historically the article was never pronounced with a y
sound, even when so written.
The indefinite article
takes the two forms a
. Semantically they can be regarded as meaning "one", usually without emphasis. They can be used only with singular countable nouns; for the possible use of some
) as an equivalent with plural and uncountable nouns, see Use of some
Distinction between a and an
The form an
is used before words starting with a vowel
sound, regardless of whether the word begins with a vowel letter
[ How to Use Articles (a/an/the) – The OWL at Purdue]
This avoids the glottal stop
(momentary silent pause) that would otherwise be required between a
and a following vowel sound. Where the next word begins with a consonant sound, a
is used. Examples: a box
; an apple
; an SSO
(pronounced "es-es-oh"); a HEPA filter
(HEPA is pronounced as a word rather than as letters); an hour
is silent); a one-armed bandit
(pronounced "won..."); an heir
(pronounced "air"); a unicorn
(pronounced "yoo-"); an herb
in American English
(where the h
is silent), but a herb
in British English.
Some speakers and writers use an before a word beginning with the sound in an unstressed syllable: an historical novel, an hotel.
[ ξ1 ] However, this usage is now uncommon and disfavored.
Some dialects, particularly in England (such as Cockney), silence many or all initial h sounds (h-dropping), and so employ an in situations where it would not be used in the standard language, like an 'elmet (standard English: a helmet).
There used to be a distinction analogous to that between a and an for the possessive determiners my and thy, which became mine and thine before a vowel, as in mine eyes.
Other more or less analogous cases in different languages include the Yiddish articles "a" (אַ) and "an" (אַן) (used in essentially the same manner as the English ones), the Hungarian articles a and az (used the same way, except that they are definite articles; juncture loss, as described below, has occurred in that language too), and the privative a- and an- prefixes, meaning "not" or "without", in Greek and Sanskrit.
are usually pronounced with a schwa
: , . However, when stressed (which is rare in ordinary speech), they are normally pronounced respectively as (to rhyme with day
) and (to rhyme with pan
). See Weak and strong forms in English
is the older form (related to one
, cognate to German ein
; etc.). An
was originally an unstressed form of the number ān
The principles for use of the indefinite article are given above under .
In addition to serving as an article, a and an are also used to express a proportional relationship, such as "a dollar a day" or "$150 an ounce" or "A sweet a day helps you work, rest and play", although historically this use of "a" and "an" does not come from the same word as the articles.
In a process called juncture loss
, the n
has wandered back and forth between the indefinite article and words beginning with vowels over the history of the language, where for example what was once a nuncle
is now an uncle
. The Oxford English Dictionary
gives such examples as smot hym on the hede with a nege tool
from 1448 for smote him on the head with an edge tool
, as well as a nox
for an ox
and a napple
for an apple
. Sometimes the change has been permanent. For example, a newt
was once an ewt
), a nickname
was once an eke-name
, where eke
means "extra" (as in eke out
meaning "add to"), and in the other direction, a napron
(meaning a little tablecloth, related to the word napkin
) became an apron
, and a naddre
became an adder
. The initial n
was also dropped through juncture loss, but this happened before the word was borrowed into English.
Use of some
The word some
is sometimes used as a functional equivalent of a(n)
(also called a partitive
). For example, Give me some apples
, Give me some water
(equivalent to the singular countable forms an apple
and a glass of water
). Grammatically this some
is not required; it is also possible to use zero article: Give me apples
, Give me water
. The use of some
in such cases implies a more limited quantity. (Compare the forms unos/unas
, which are the plural of the indefinite article un/una
In most negative clauses, and often in questions, the word any is used instead of some: Don't give me any apples; Is there any water?
The determiner some can also have a more emphatic meaning: "some but not others" or "some but not many". For example, some people like football, while others prefer rugby, or I've got some money, but not enough to lend you any. It can also be used as an indefinite pronoun, not qualifying a noun at all ( Give me some!) or followed by a prepositional phrase ( I want some of your vodka); the same applies to any.
Some can also be used with singular countable nouns, as in There is some person on the porch, which implies that the identity of the person is unknown to the speaker (which is not necessarily the case when a(n) is used). This usage is fairly informal, although singular countable some can also be found in formal contexts: We seek some value of x such that...
When some is used with merely the function of an indefinite article, it is normally pronounced weakly, as . In other meanings it is pronounced . See Weak and strong forms in English.
Effect on alphabetical order
In sorting titles and phrases alphabetically, articles are usually excluded from consideration, since being so common makes them more of a hindrance than a help in finding a desired item. For example, The Comedy of Errors
is alphabetized before A Midsummer Night's Dream
, because the
are ignored and comedy
alphabetizes before midsummer
. In an index, the former work might be written "Comedy of Errors, The", with the article moved to the end.
Vietnamese learners mastering english articles
"The Definite Article: Acknowledging 'The' in Index Entries", Glenda Browne, The Indexer, vol. 22, no. 3 April 2001, pp. 119–22.
Low MH 2005: "The Phenomenon of the Word THE in English — discourse functions and distribution patterns" — a dissertation that surveys the use of the word 'the' in English text.
When Do You Use Articles: A, An, The
Etymology of the word THE on the Online Etymology Dictionary
Mastering A, An, The: English Articles Solved
How to use articles (1): a, an and the in practice