Have you ever faced the dilemma of choosing between an ‘a’ or an ‘an’ or even ‘the’ before a word? Are there any rules you follow? Or do you just end up going with whatever you feel is correct? These questions may seem trivial, but actually play an important role in answering grammar questions and are essential while writing essays, business letters, and those critical covering notes about your achievements.
Luckily, learning the fundamentals of grammar begins pretty early in life for most of us. Articles, or ‘a’, ‘an’, and ‘the’ figure quite early in the learning ladder; even then we are sometimes at a loss about their correct usage. Though the basic rule is quite simple - that if a word begins with a vowel, use ‘an’, and if it begins with a consonant, use ‘a’; ‘the’ is used to point out something certain or identified. Let’s go through the scope of these and master their usage to avoid any embarrassing mistakes later on.
There are two types of articles: indefinite and definite. The indefinite articles are a and an. We use 'a' before words that begin with
consonant sounds like 'a car', 'a bicycle', 'a drum', and 'a girl'. We use 'an' before words that begin with vowel sounds like 'an umbrella', 'an apple', 'an apparition', 'an enigma' and 'an aquarium'. These articles are indefinite because they do not point to any noun in particular. When we speak of ‘a destination,’ we are not speaking of any destination in particular. Similarly, if we write of ‘an idea,’ we don’t have any specific idea in mind.
Determining which indefinite article to use is not as simple as seeing whether the following word begins with a vowel or a consonant. The article 'an' sometimes precedes words that begin with a consonant but are pronounced with an initial vowel sound, as in, 'an hour' and 'an honour'. The article 'a' sometimes precedes words that begin with a vowel but are pronounced with an initial consonant sound, as in, 'a unit' and 'a university'. Some words are pronounced with either an initial consonant or an initial vowel sound, as in, a or an history, a or an hotel. In these cases, you must choose the article that fits in with your pronunciation. This rule applies to acronyms too; for example, in NGO, since the letter 'N' is pronounced ‘en’, it’s ‘an NGO’ but when the full form is used instead of the abbreviation, it changes to ‘a Non-Governmental Organisation’.
The definite article 'the', on the other hand, points to particular people, places, things and ideas. When we speak of 'the cat', we are referring to one cat in particular. When we say, 'the car', there is only one car that we could mean. We use the definite article when we are certain that the reader or listener knows which person, place, thing, or idea the noun names, as in, “The book you just mentioned is on the bookshelf,” and “The dresses are in the closet.” In the first example, the definite article ‘the’ is used with the noun ‘book’ because the thing named by the noun has been mentioned. In the second sentence, the definite article ‘the’ is used with the noun 'dresses' because the particular dresses are so familiar to the person to whom the sentence is directed that it needs no other identification. ‘The’ is used to make general statements about all things of a particular type. “The metro has led to the loss of many jobs,” and “The bicycle can save the
environment from further damage.”
‘The’ is also used to denote someone or something as being the only one, as in ‘The Indian hockey team’, ‘the Prime Minister’, and ‘the Queen of England’, and to indicate a class or group, as ‘the bureaucracy’, ‘the legal eagles’ , and ‘the writers’ association’. ‘The’ is also used to refer to services or systems, such as, “They prefer going by the bus.” It can also be used to name a musical instrument when someone’s musical prowess is being referred to; for example, ‘Rhea plays the piano very well.’
‘The’ is as well used to identify something unique or important, as in “Is that the David Guetta over there?” and “She is the actor of the year.” In such cases, it is important to remember that ‘the’ is pronounced as ‘thee’ for emphasis. An exception to the above rule is the noun man, when it is used to denote the human race as a whole, as in, "Man does not live by bread alone". In most cases, the article directly precedes the noun that it determines or modifies. For example, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”, or “The sun rises in the East.”
The definite article is also used in front of superlative adjectives, as in, “The largest bank in the country”, and “The most beautiful girl”. ‘The’ can also be used instead of a possessive determiner to refer to parts of the body, for example, ‘The cat scratched him on the arm’ or ‘He took her by the arm’.
‘The’ can also be omitted in many types of usage. For instance, most references to countries like 'India', or 'Sri Lanka' need no definite article, nor do references to their citizens - 'Indians' or 'Sri Lankans' - unless, again, a particular subgroup is being referred to, “The Indians in the group were quite reserved and kept together”. Exceptions comprise use of “the Netherlands” and other geographically-influenced names. This rule applies to the names of other geographical regions as well. We say 'Mount Everest', but 'the Himalayas'; 'Andamans' but 'the Andaman Islands' and 'Hawaii', but 'the Hawaiian Islands'.
Remember, if the noun is proper it will take no article. Since a proper noun is the name of a particular person, place or thing such as 'Anita', 'Seema', 'India', 'London' etc., we cannot say 'the Anita' or 'the India'. Articles are also not used with material nouns; examples are: gold, silver, iron, wheat, rice etc. We never say ‘a gold’ or ‘a wheat’, when referring specifically to the noun. ‘The’ is used in measuring expressions beginning with, for example, "Do you sell oranges by the kilo or by the dozen?’" If you omit the ‘the’ in front of kilo and dozen, the sentence will become incorrect. Do use ‘the’ before names of rivers, oceans and seas like 'the Ganges', 'the Arabian Sea' or points on the globe like 'the Equator', 'the North Pole' and also geographical areas (not when referring to
directions!) like 'the East' or 'the West'.
Some common types of nouns don’t
require articles. These are names of languages and nationalities, as in English, Chinese, or Russian. Names of sports also don’t take articles, for example, hockey, cricket, basketball, etc. Even subjects like mathematics, biology, history, and computer science don’t need articles. Contemporary grammar puts articles in a category of words called ‘determiners,’ since the function of the article is to limit, point out, or determine a noun.
— Shradha Kaul is an alumnus of
Lady Shri Ram College; her expertise
lies in the field of English language and literature.
Shradha began her career with the
MHRD and has been Academic Head (Verbal) at Career Launcher. She is currently associated with Education Times, Tatas,
NIIT, AHA &
Wolters Kluwer. Her expertise lies in test prep, soft skills development, and e-learning-based instructional design. She has also authored All About CAT Verbal Prep