A, an, the, or no article at all?

Non-native speakers of English may have difficulty distinguishing the difference between the use of each article, so we came up with a simple way to know which article you should use.

Take the following sentences for example:

  • Could you hand me the book?
  • Could you hand me a book?

The correct choice depends on what you are trying to convey. The first sentence means there is a specific book the speaker is referencing. The article the would be used when the book in question has already been mentioned before and the listener knows which book the speaker is referring to.

In the second sentence, the speaker is just talking about any book in general. The speaker does not have a specific book in mind.

  • Can you hand me the book on the table?
  • Can you hand me a book on the table?

If there was a single book on a table near the listener, then the book the speaker is referring to would be the single book on the table. If there are multiple books on the table and either the speaker or the listener has talked about a specific book recently, then the book the speaker is referring to would be the book just mentioned.

However, if there are multiple books on the table and the speaker just wants any book to be handed to him or her, then the correct article in this case would be a.

The refers to something specific.

A and an is a general reference to the item or object.

A or An

When you are referring to a general object, you will use either a or an. If the word in question is starts with a consonant sound, you use a, and if it starts with a vowel sound, then you use an.

Vowels: A, E, I, O, U

Although many debate whether Y is a vowel or not, in this context, the Y sound is not a vowel sound.

Consonants: B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, X, Y, Z

  • A apple a day keeps the doctor away. → An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
    • Apple (a-pl) starts with an A sound
  • Can you tell me an bedtime story? → Can you tell me a bedtime story?
    • Bedtime (bed-time) starts with a B sound
  • I’ll meet you in a hour. → I’ll meet you in an hour.
    • Hour (au-ur) starts with an O sound
  • My daughter thought she saw an unicorn. → My daughter thought she saw a unicorn.
    • Unicorn (yoo-nuh-korn) starts with a Y sound
  • Have you watched a NBA game before? → Have you watched an NBA game before?
    • NBA (en-bee-ay) starts with an E sound

When not to use an article:

  • Before names
    • The Sarah finished school when she was 18. → Sarah finished school when she was 18.
  • Before most organization names, holidays, book titles, and movie titles
    • The NASA has been observing Jupiter’s moons. → NASA has been observing Jupiter’s moons.
    • Did you go home for the Christmas? → Did you go home for Christmas?
    • We read Charlotte’s Web in third grade.
    • My English teacher showed us the Gone with the Wind last Thursday. → My English teacher showed us Gone with the Wind last Thursday.
    • Before most city and country names
    • Have you ever visited the Paris? → Have you ever visited Paris?
    • My family and I traveled to the Brazil over the summer. → My family and I traveled to Brazil over the summer.
    • Some exceptions: The Hague, the Netherlands, the Philippines, the Gambia
  • Before certain words when they stand alone
    • The society has changed over the years. → Society has changed over the years.
    • She went the home because she felt sick. → She went home because she felt sick.
  • Before a language
    • Sarah learned the Spanish in high school. → Sarah learned Spanish in high school.
  • Before name of a sport
    • Jimmy played the basketball all throughout college. → Jimmy played basketball all throughout college.

If you are using any of the words above to describe another noun, then it is most likely that you will need an article:

  • The NASA satellite landed on the moon nine years ago.
  • Did you get an outfit for the Christmas party?
  • The Inception fanbase was enthralled by blogger’s interesting interpretation of the film.
  • The media does not talk about the Paris slums often.
  • We visited the home of Martin Luther King Jr.
  • You can purchase the Spanish textbook online.
  • The basketball game was canceled due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, there are always exceptions in English. A non-native speaker of English may struggle to know all the words that require or don’t require an article, so using a site like Pcanpi can help you determine if you need an article or not right away.

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