In idea. Technically, an article is an adjective,

In this lesson, we will explore three very small but important words in the English language: the articles a, an and the.

These are words that you use in almost every sentence that you speak or write. Learn about the significance of articles, when to use them and some examples.

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Definition of Articles

An article is a word used to modify a noun, which is a person, place, object, or idea. Technically, an article is an adjective, which is any word that modifies a noun. Usually adjectives modify nouns through description, but articles are used instead to point out or refer to nouns.

There are two different types of articles that we use in writing and conversation to point out or refer to a noun or group of nouns: definite and indefinite articles.

Definite Article

Let’s begin by looking at the definite article. This article is the word ‘the,’ and it refers directly to a specific noun or groups of nouns.

For example:

  • the freckles on my face
  • the alligator in the pond
  • the breakfast burrito on my plate

Each noun or group of nouns being referred to – in these cases freckles, alligator, and breakfast burrito – is direct and specific.

Indefinite Articles

Indefinite articles are the words ‘a’ and ‘an.’ Each of these articles is used to refer to a noun, but the noun being referred to is not a specific person, place, object, or idea. It can be any noun from a group of nouns. For example:

  • a Mercedes from the car lot
  • an event in history

In each case, the noun is not specific.

The Mercedes could be any Mercedes car available for purchase, and the event could be any event in the history of the world.

Article Usage with Examples

Properly using a definite article is fairly straightforward, but it can be tricky when you are trying to figure out which indefinite article to use. The article choice depends on the sound at the beginning of the noun that is being modified. There is a quick and easy way to remember this.

If the noun that comes after the article begins with a vowel sound, the appropriate indefinite article to use is ‘an.’ A vowel sound is a sound that is created by any vowel in the English language: ‘a,’ ‘e,’ ‘i,’ ‘o,’ ‘u,’ and sometimes ‘y’ if it makes an ‘e’ or ‘i’ sound. For example:

  • an advertisement on the radio (this noun begins with ‘a,’ which is a vowel)
  • an element on the periodic table (this noun begins with ‘e,’ which is also a vowel)

If the noun that comes after the article begins with a consonant sound, the appropriate indefinite article to use is ‘a.’ A consonant sound is a sound that comes from the letters that are not the vowels in the English language. For example:

  • a tire on my car (the noun the article modifies begins with ‘t,’ which is a consonant)
  • a baboon at the zoo (the noun the article modifies begins with ‘b,’ which is also a consonant)

Sometimes a noun begins with a consonant, but when you say the word out loud, it makes a vowel sound. For example, the word ‘hour’ begins with an ‘h,’ but when you say it out loud, it may sound like it begins with an ‘o.

‘ In this case, you would pay attention to the sound that it makes, rather than just looking at the letter. If it is a vowel sound, use the article ‘an’ instead of ‘a.’ For example:

  • an hour
  • an hors d’oeuvre

On the other hand, sometimes a noun begins with a vowel, but when you say the word out loud, it makes a consonant sound. For example, the word ‘union’ begins with a ‘u,’ which is a vowel, but when you say the word out loud, it sounds like it begins with a ‘y,’ which is a consonant.

Again in this case, pay attention to the sound rather than the letter. For example:

  • a unicorn from a fairytale
  • a ukulele in a music store

Lesson Summary

An article is a word used to modify a noun. In other words, we use articles to point out or refer to nouns in conversation and writing. If you are referring to a specific noun, use the definite article ‘the’. If you are referring to a noun that could be any member of a group of nouns, use one of the indefinite articles ‘a’ or ‘an’. To choose the appropriate indefinite article, pay attention to the sound that the noun begins with.

If the noun begins with a vowel sound, use the article ‘an.’ If the noun begins with a consonant sound, use the article ‘a.’ Keep in mind that the letter and the sound don’t always match up, so watch your words, and be careful to choose the appropriate article.

The Article

The article
Definite Article Indefinite Article
the ‘a’ and ‘an’
used for specific nouns used for general nouns

Learning Outcomes

Refresh your memory on the subject of articles, then determine how well you can:

  • Convey the purpose of an article
  • Compare definite and indefinite articles
  • Specify when to use ‘a’ or ‘an’ in writing or speech, even when the letter and sound don’t match
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