What’s so bad about leaving out the article?

There are some mistakes that native speakers of English can “forgive” (not consider such a big deal, say it’s OK), such as the occasional wrong verb tense, the mispronunciation of a word or the wrong word in a sentence. But, when native English speakers hear the absence of the necessary articles (“a”, “an” or “the”) before nouns, they often think to themselves, “Wow, this person really can’t speak English.”

This is because the article in English is used all the time before most nouns.


The Articles: "a", "an" and "the"

The articles (“a”, “an” or “the”) tell us whether we’re speaking about a special, definite thing or a more general thing.

• I parked the car.  Meaning: I’m talking about the car you know I own.

• I saw a really cute kitten for sale.  Meaning: I saw a kitten you don’t know about.

An orange has a lot of vitamin C.  Meaning: We’re talking in general about all oranges.

We would usually use an “a”, but in English, it’s too hard to pronounce an “a” before a word with a vowel (a, e i,o, u -- like orange), so we use the article “an”. It’s easier to pronounce.


In fact, the articles “a”, “an” and “the” are probably the most common words in the English language. When we English speakers use them, we hardly notice them. We only notice when, first, they’re not used at all, and second, when they’re used wrong. But, not using them at all is worse than using them improperly. It’s better to say:


1. “I bought the new car yesterday.” In most cases, it should be “a new car”. than...

2. “I bought new car yesterday.” not using any article.


If, for example, you’re a Russian or Asian speaker, your languages don’t even have articles before nouns. And, it’s really hard to learn where to put them when speaking or writing English, because these weird words just don’t seem to make any sense at the beginning. By the way, this is true of all languages. I’m sure there’s something in Chinese that I don’t have in English and that I would have a very hard time using it if I was learning Chinese.


Ways to increase your use of articles


1. Listen to native English on TV, the radio, and in movies

(with or without subtitles)

Just get used to hearing the "a", "an" and "the" before all the words. At first, don’t try to analyze (understand why) certain articles are used. Just notice that they are used before most nouns.


2. Practice putting the article (either "a" or "the") before every noun you say

It may not be the right article, but it will get you used to using it. (Surprise: You’ll learn later when to use no article at all.)


3. Practice the difference between the articles

When you get good at putting articles in front of all nouns, then you can start practicing the difference between the articles. Ask your italki teacher to practice this with you:


4. Get a list of nouns

A few common ones are these:

• dog

• student

• house

• shop


First, put “a” in front of very noun:

• a dog

• a student

• a house

• a shop

Here, the meaning of "a dog" is just some or any dog; not a certain one, etc.


Next, put “the” in front of every noun:

• the dog

• the student

• the house

• the shop

Here, the meaning is of "the dog" is a definite dog that you or the person listening to you knows about.

Practice with your italki teacher until you really start to understand the difference between using “a” and “the”.


Then, get list of nouns that start with vowels, and do the same exercise, puting “an” in front of them:

• an apple

• an office

• an elevator

• an information place (here, the “an” goes before the adjective that starts with a vowel)


Before you know it, you’re going to sound like a native!


Ilene Springer is an italki teacher from the USA. 



A good website on the articles in English: Purdue OWL: How to use articles (a/an/the)

Image by spDuchamp (CC BY 2.0)