Using Articles: A, An, The
(printable version here)
Rules for using articles often confuse students who learn English as their second language. Even native speakers of English can have problems in this area! Here are a few pointers:
"A" is used before singular words beginning with a consonant or a word beginning in "h" where the letter is pronounced; "an" is used before singular words beginning in a vowel or with a "silent h":
"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
"A historian gave us a hand for an hour when we were planting an heirloom rose bush in a hothouse. It was an honorable thing to do, so we sang a hymn of praise."
"A" or "an" precede words that refer to general things; "the" comes before words referring to specific things. Imagine two policemen having a conversation:
"Are you sure this is the man who stole the car?"
"No. A witness saw a man, but the man we arrested is not the one."
"Well, he confessed to stealing a car."
"That's true, but was it the car we picked up on Plum Street?"
Sometimes these straightforward rules can get confusing. Consider these examples:
"That is a book you borrowed last month."
"That is the book you borrowed last month."
Note that both are correct! In the first example, the second speaker implies that the other person may have borrowed more than one book last month. In the second example, there is no doubt: last month the first person borrowed one book from the second person.
Some general words take no article at all.
- Plural words:
- "Maybe he steals cars for a living."
- "Maybe he wears disguises; thieves can do that."
- Words signifying things that cannot be counted easily. Words such as "sand, milk, fruit" and other things that are measured in quantity can be preceded by a measurement (eight cans, a gallon, a pound):
- "We found sand in the car." ("the sand" if it was some specific sand that was being discussed).
"Where was the sand? In the trunk or on the carpet? Did you find anything else?"
"We found beer in the trunk."
"How much beer?"
"Eight cans of beer."
- Words signifying abstract concepts, ideas, or subjects:
- "I'm studying biology this year."
- "What are you doing in philosophy?"
"We're studying the history of knowledge." (a specific type of history, but not "the knowledge"--knowledge is a general concept).
Back to 'Sentence Structure and Mechanics'
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