Articles: A, An, and The A Guide for ESL Students Countable, Non-countable, and Abstract Nouns • To understand when to use articles, you should be aware of these three types of nouns. • Countable nouns are things that can be counted. • Most nouns are countable nouns, like tree, cat, and shoe. • Countable nouns have both a plural and a singular form. • Some nouns are neither fully plural or singular, because they can’t be counted. • Nouns like milk and air are non-countable nouns. • A special type of non-countable nouns are abstract nouns. Abstract nouns are ideas rather than people, places or things. • Nouns like happiness and intelligence are abstract nouns. A/An • Use a/an for singular countable nouns. • Right: I have a cat. • Wrong: I have cat. • Use a for nouns that start with a consonant sound and an for nouns that start with a vowel sound. • • • • Right: A bird sat in a tree. Wrong: An bird sat in a tree. Right: An ostrich is a big bird. Wrong: A ostrich is a big bird. • Also use an when the noun is preceded by an adjective that begins with a vowel sound, even when the noun starts with a consonant sound. • Right: It was an obvious choice. • Wrong: It was a obvious choice. • A/an is for non-specific nouns. A cat could mean any cat, not necessarily a particular one. The • Use the when you mean a particular thing, or the only one. • Example: A bird sat in the tree. • Unlike a/an, you can use the for both singular and plural words. • Example: Birds sat in the trees. • You can also use the for non-countable nouns, but not for abstract nouns. • Example: Did you get the milk? Pronouns and Proper Nouns • Pronouns never have articles. • Most proper nouns don’t have articles, although some countries, and organizations have The as part of their name. In that case, The should be capitalized. • Some proper nouns containing The: The Home Depot, The United States of America Generalities • In some languages, like Spanish, an article is always used for nouns being discussed in a general sense. In English, generalities never get an article. • Right: Roses need plenty of sunlight. • Wrong: The roses need plenty of sunlight. • In the second sentence, the use of the changes the meaning. Instead of roses in general, the sentence now discusses some particular roses. Quick Checklist: Must-haves for A/An and The A/An • Non-specific • Singular • Countable The • Specific • Singular or plural • Countable or Noncountable (except for abstract nouns) Spot the Errors Sweet potatoes are popular vegetable with many possibilities for both sweet and savory dishes. Many people are familiar with desserts like sweet potato pie and roasted sweet potatoes with marshmallows, but have you tried the sweet potatoes with garlic or rosemary? Sweet potatoes add a interesting touch of sweetness to many dishes. A Correct Version Sweet potatoes are a popular vegetable with many possibilities for both sweet and savory dishes. Many people are familiar with desserts like sweet potato pie and roasted sweet potatoes with marshmallows, but have you tried sweet potatoes with garlic or rosemary? Sweet potatoes add an interesting touch of sweetness to many dishes. Bonus: You may have thought sweet potato pie would be a countable noun, because one can count individual pies. In this case it is being used as the name of a particular dish, not an individual object. Don’t Worry If You Get It Wrong. Articles are one of the most difficult aspects of learning a language. It takes many years of practice to consistently use them correctly. Many non-native speakers who speak and write English well still have problems with articles. Most of the time, people will be able to understand what you mean, even if the articles are wrong. Just keep trying, and remember that everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Think about how far you’ve come in your language learning!