Writing Improvement Corner (P. Ng)




The indefinite article: a/an

The definite article: the

The zero article: no article is used


            The proper use of articles (a/an, the, and zero article) in English is something not easily mastered by students for whom English is not a first language.  Incorrect use of articles (in particular, the indiscriminate use of the) is one of the most conspicuous deficiencies in their writing.  Learn to use articles correctly, and your writing will read more smoothly and naturally.


Articles are words we use before nouns or noun phrases to indicate the kind of reference or meaning intended: 

                        I have a plan.  (some plan, but we do not know which one)

                        Is this the plan you have been working on?  (we now know which one)

                        Plans are always necessary for greater efficiency.  (a general statement)


          A or an?  A is used with words that begin with a consonant sound:

                        a plan   a concept   a game   a university   a usual routine (As in university,

u in usual is pronounced ju, a consonant sound.)


            An is used with words that begin with a vowel sound:

                        an event   an idea   an hour (silent h)   an honest (silent h) person            

                        an organization  an unusual arrangement


            Here is not the place to delve into a full discussion of the subject of articles.  You can consult a good grammar book (e.g., Collins Cobuild English Grammar, and Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use) for details.  To help you in a more practical way, let me draw your attention to three things on which the use or non-use of articles depends: (1) the kind of noun we use, (2) general or particular meaning, and (3) definite or indefinite reference.


1.   The kind of noun used


      1.1   The indefinite article a/an can only be used with singular count (countable) nouns:

                    a group            a problem      a value             an idea             an organization


      1.2   The definite article the can be used with all kinds of nouns:

                    the group      the problem      the value      the values      the idea 

                    the ideas      the organization      the organizations        (all count nouns)


                    the confidence      the cooperation      the patience      the knowledge

                    the progress the resistance      the worth      (all uncount nouns)


      1.3   The zero article is used with (a) plural count nouns and (b) uncount nouns:

                    (a) groups   problems   values   ideas   organizations   people  phenomena

                    (b) confidence   cooperation   patience   knowledge   progress   resistance

                           worth   information   evidence   advice   news  


      1.4   Never use a/an with uncount nouns.  We CANNOT say:  a confidence  a cooperation  a news   an advice   a knowledge


            However, we can use a/an with an uncount noun when it is qualified.  We CAN say:

              a strong confidence   a rare cooperation   an important news   a piece of good advice

hits since 3 Sept. 2001