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.
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 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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