Articles include the words a, an, and the, and deciding which one to use can be confusing, particularly for ESL students, who may not have similar patterns in their native languages.

Here are a few simple rules to get you started

Use the article “a” before a consonant sound : a student, a football game, a ball. Use “an” before word beginning with a vowel or a vowel sound: an aunt, an idea, an hour, an honest response.

ESL students may find themselves struggling with knowing which article to use, however, when trying to decide between “a,” “an” and “the,” so below we are going to first consider the nouns themselves. 

Nouns name people, places, things, ideas or concepts:  St. Louis, Lebanon, Dr. Gordon, banana, house, love, diversity, etc. The first thing you need to do is to decide whether you have a countable or non-countable noun.

Countable Nouns

These nouns can literally be counted (one, two, three, etc.), and they usually can be made plural by adding an “s” or an “es”: girl, boat, school.

Uncountable Nouns

These nouns have no plural form: furniture, tea, soap, jewelry, snow, gasoline, money,  vocabulary, etc. We cannot add “s” or “es” to the end of these phrases, and we also do not need “a” or “an” in front of these nouns:

Incorrect: He painted several furnitures for me.

Incorrect: He asked me for an advice.

You can, however, add a quantifier before your uncountable noun if you want to express an amount, such as some, any, a little, a lot, plenty, some, much, etc.:

Correct: He asked me for some meat for dinner.

Correct: She washed the car with a little soap.

Correct: A little snow is always nice at Christmas.

You can also add a unit word before your uncountable noun; these words are countable, and so therefore require an article: a bottle of wine, a head of lettuce, a piece of furniture.

Once you can identify what kind of noun you have, the next step is to decide whether you need an a, an, the, or no article at all.  Here are some basic guidelines to get you started:

1. Is the noun a proper noun?

In this case you do not need an article:  

2. Does the noun make reference to a specific person, object or thing?

3. Is the noun uncountable? 

In this case do not use a or an. 

The definite article " the" is used when the noun is one whose identity will be clear to the reader.  Look at the following examples:

Eric Davis was at the finish line waiting for the runners after the Eric Davis Run for Colon Cancer.  When the race ended, the runners stopped to talk to him him .   (In this case the nouns were previously mentioned; we know that "the race" and "the runners" refers to a specific race and specific runners.)

The bookstore told me that the book I need for Computer Science will not be available for another week.   (The phrase "need for Computer Science" clearly identifies which book is being referred to.)

Jarod was the smartest student in the freshman class.  (The "smartest student" restricts identity of Jarod.)

The instructor told us not to turn off the computers when we were through. ( The identity of the computer would be clear to both the instructor and the students.)

The article "the" should not be used if the noun means "all" or "in general":

Swimming  lessons are an excellent way to overcome your fear of drowning.

I always like to have Ben and Jerry's ice cream after a hard day.

The is also not used with most singular proper nouns ( i.e. President Dobbins; College Ave., Mount Hood). The is often used, however, with plural proper nouns: the United States or the Iberian Peninsula.

Of course, the best way to learn is with practice, so try the exercise below. Mark the sentence with a "C" if it is correct.  You can find the correct answers by linking below.

Using Articles Exercise

1.  Catherine had never flown in a airplane before.

2. Carla wanted to go to the Six Flags Amusement Park with Eric. 

3. I want to give you an idea of what will be expected of you next semester. 

4. Julie had been dancing for the McKendree College Dance Team for almost three years.

5. Full moon will occur in three days from now.

6. Are you going to go to the Carlyle Lake for the day?

7. We are looking for an apartment that will allow us to have three dogs and four cats.

8. Peter took a piece of bread and spread peanut butter all over it.

9. Yolanda offered me a milk to go with my cookies.

10. A confidence is what Juan was striving for. 

11. He wanted to rent an equipment from Ryder to haul his broken car away. 

12. Students in the United States do not often begin thinking about graduate school until they are juniors or seniors.