Whether you are a beginner or an advanced student, misusing articles is one of the most common mistakes that students make in English. Articles often don’t exist in other languages, so when certain learners translate directly from their own language to English, they often forget to add the article. However, learning how to use articles is fairly simple and can be mastered quickly with a little practice and knowledge of the rules. Here are a few simple steps that I often share with my students.
Step #1: Understanding countable nouns
A countable noun is simply a noun that you can count or have more than one of. For example: two apples, three cups, four pens, one dog. If you can have more than one of something, it’s a countable noun and it potentially needs an article in front of it. If you can’t have more than one, then it’s an uncountable noun. Can you have three furnitures? No, furniture is not countable.
Step #2: When to put “a” or “an” in front of countable nouns
If the noun is countable, you only have one of it and you are not being specific, then you need to put “a” or “an” in front of it. Think of it as a way of saying how many you have:
- Correct: I read a book.
- Incorrect: I read book.
- Correct: We’re getting a dog today.
- Incorrect: We’re getting dog today.
Step #3: When to use “an”
We only use “an” when the word that follows it starts with a vowel (a,e,i,o,u). It is used in the same circumstances that we would use “a”:
- Correct: I’m getting an iphone.
- Incorrect: I’m getting a iphone / I’m getting iphone.
- Correct: I would like an apple.
- Incorrect: I would like a apple / I would like apple.
Step #4: When to use “the”
We use “the” when we are talking about something specific, obvious or something that the people in the conversation already know about. Thus, it is used when you are only referring to one particular thing or group of things
- I will see you at the football game (This refers to a game that both people in the conversation already know about).
- I will see you at a football game (This refers to any football game).
- I’m going into the building (This refers to a particular building).
- I’m going into a building (This refers to a general, non specific building).
We often start conversations using “a,” and then switch to “the” as the subject becomes familiar:
- I took a train to New York. The train was late.
- I saw a man wearing a coat. The man went down the street.
Step #5: Don’t use “a” or “an” with plural nouns
“A” and “an” are only used with singular nouns or when you only have one of something:
- Correct: I have two apples. I have apples.
- Incorrect: I have two an apples. I have an apples.
- Correct: I have three bowls. I have bowls.
- Incorrect: I have three an bowls. I made an bowls.
Step #6: Don’t use “a” or “an” with uncountable nouns
Music, luggage, money, water… these are all examples of uncountable nouns. Remember, a countable noun is a noun that you can have more than one of. Therefore, something you can’t have more than one of is an uncountable noun. You cannot have two musics, three luggages, six monies or eight waters. Therefore, we do not put “a” or “an” in front of them.
The rules for “the” still apply. You can put “the” in front of these words if you are talking about something specific:
- Correct: Please hand me the water.
- Incorrect: Please hand me a water.
- Correct: Grab the luggage.
- Incorrect: Grab a luggage.
- Correct: Is the music on?
- Incorrect: Is a music on?
Step #7: If a noun is plural, it does not need “a” or “an,” but you can still use “the”
“A” and “an” are only used with singular countable nouns. Never use them with a plural countable noun. However, you can use “the” with plural countable nouns:
- Correct: I have the cups.
- Incorrect: I have a cups.
- Correct: I have the bottles.
- Incorrect: I have a bottles.
Ready to put this into practice? Which of the nouns below are countable?
- spoon, milk, information, suitcase, electricity, bag, fan, pizza, advice, trash
Decide if they should have an article or not. Challenge yourself to create a sentence using these nouns. Good luck!
Hero Image by Gerry Dincher (CC BY-SA 2.0)