Basic Differences between the Indefinite Article (a/an) & the Definite Article (the)
There are two articles in English: the definite article (‘the’) and the indefinite article (‘a’ or ‘an’). Firstly, what do these words definite and indefinite mean when we talk about grammar?
definite = something that is clear; it is understood (by the listener)
indefinite = something that is not clear; it is unknown (to the listener)
When we use articles, we have to think about the person you are talking to (the listener). Generally, if we are talking about a noun (e.g. an apple) and the listener understands WHICH apple we are talking about, we use the definite article ‘the’. For example, “The apple you have in your hand is red.” In this sentence, the person only has one apple in his hand. So, the listener knows it is definitely, clearly, the apple that the speaker is talking about.
If the listener doesn’t know what apple you are talking about, then we use the indefinite article ‘a(n)’. For example, “I eat an apple every day.” In this sentence, the listener doesn’t know specifically what apple the speaker eats every day. The speaker eats one apple, but it’s not clear (or unknown) which apple is eaten. (Also, it’s not important!)
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Next, it is important if the noun in the sentence can be counted or not.
‘A(n)’ is used before a non-specific (indefinite) noun that can be counted.
This means you use it before countable things, like “a tree, an apple, a dog.” Again, you should use “a(n)” when you are not talking about a definite (or specific) tree, apple, or job. You are just talking about one, any one. “I want a job” means “I want one job.” You don’t care what job you get; you just want one. A job = one job.
‘The’ is used before specific (definite) nouns.
These nouns can be countable (e.g. the tree) or nouns that cannot be counted (e.g. the power, the milk). The important thing here is that the nouns are definite (or specific). The person you are talking to knows what tree, power, or milk you are talking about. For example: “The sun is hot.” There is only one sun. You must be talking about the sun, which is definitely the sun above Earth.
No article is needed before non-specific (general) nouns that cannot be counted.
If a noun cannot be counted and you are talking about it generally (not specifically), then no article is used. For example, “Love is great.” or “I like rice.” ‘Love’ and ‘rice’ are not countable, and the speaker isn’t talking about a specific (or definite) love (e.g. The love a man has for his wife) or a specific rice (e.g. The rice in Thailand), so no article is needed.
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Useful Hint: A(n) = One
Remember that you should use “a(n)” when you can use “one” in the same place and the sentence will have the same meaning. This is a good rule that should make it easier if you are having troubles.
“Chicago is ___ city in America.”
Can you use “one” here? Yes. America has many cities. The speaker wants to say that Chicago is one of the many cities in America. “Chicago is one city in America” has the same meaning as “Chicago is a city in America.” That is what the speaker wants to say. So we should use the indefinite article “a(n)”.
“Chicago is a city in America. ___ city has 2.7 million people.”
Can you use “one” here? No. You are talking about Chicago. If you said “One city has 2.7 million people.”, the person listening to you would ask “What city?” It’s the city of Chicago that has 2.7 million people. That’s the city we are talking about. That’s the city I just said in the sentence before that! (Are you listening?!) Specifically, the city (of Chicago) has 2.7 million people.
There are many rules with English articles. They can be difficult to use. But this rule should help.
Do you think you understand? Try this basic articles quiz!
Short Quiz on the Indefinite & Definite Articles in English
Sunday is last day of the week.
I live in apartment. apartment has kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms.
Barrack Obama is President of the United States. He has wife and two children.
There are many fish in Pacific Ocean.
Sunday is the last day of the week.
I live in an apartment. The apartment has a kitchen, a bathroom, and two bedrooms.
Barrack Obama is the President of the United States. He has a wife and two children.
There are many fish in the Pacific Ocean.
I bought banana at the store. price was very low.
I don’t like stress. I am healthy. I drink water every day.
I don’t have energy to run 10 kilometres. I am old man.
I bought a banana at the store. The price was very low.
I don’t like stress. I drink water every day.
I don’t have the energy to run 10 kilometres. I am an old man.
- Article Practice Exercises (All Levels)
- The Importance of Word Sounds with the Indefinite Articles A & An
- The Definite Article with Names of Places (Advanced)
– Matthew Barton, EnglishCurrent.com