Writing Tips: Articles
Articles are words that either precede or come before a noun; they
help us to determine what kinds of nouns (words used to indicate a
person, place, or thing) the sentence uses, often acting as signals
as to what comes next. Articles can be indefinite (a, or an) or definite
(the). The broadest definition of an indefinite article is: a word
that precedes a general noun (one that does not refer to a specific
thing). The broadest definition of a definite article is: a word that
precedes a specific noun (one whose identity is known or is about
to be made
Here, the article "a" modifies (limits in meaning or qualifies) the general noun "bird." "Bird" is considered a general noun because the sentence does not specify what kind of bird the cat is chasing.
In this sentence we know exactly what kind of bird the cat is chasing, and thus we can use the definite article "the" since it precedes or modifies a specific noun, "parakeet."
+ Use "the" when an essential clause or phrase follows the noun:
Example: The cat, who had jumped down from the table, is a gray tabby.
+ Use "the" when the noun refers to a group as a whole:
Example: The lion is a fierce and dangerous animal.
+ Use "the" with names composed of common and proper nouns:
Example: the University of Nevada, Las Vegas the Nile river
+ Use "the" when proper names/nouns are plural:
Example: the United States the Canary Islands
+ Use "the" when points of the compass are used as names:
Example: the Northeast the West
+ Use "the" when discussing time:
Example: the past the morning the beginning
+ Use "the" when using superlatives (a word that indicates a comparison of three or more objects or actions):
Example: the greatest writer of all time the largest car
+ Use "the" with gerunds (word formed by using a verb form and the suffix "-ing") or abstract nouns (nouns which refer to ideas, qualities, conditions and generalized concepts and that do not have plural forms) followed by phrases beginning with "of":
Example: The selling of the piano was my job. The sincerity of her letter seemed evident.
+ Use "the" with adjectives used as nouns:
Example: The lucky are those who don't have to take their final exams.
** Some tips suggested partially or directly from the Prentice Hall Guide to Grammar and Usage, 3rd Edition. For more complete information, see "Part Eight," pages 308-312.
+ Use of the indefinite article "a":
+ Example of a singular proper noun:
Next month, we plan on driving to Austin, Texas. (Hint: You will always be able to spot "proper" nouns because they will be capitalized!)
+ Example of unspecified plural nouns meaning "all" or "in general":
Cats see well in the dark. (In this case, "cats" refer to all cats, or cats in general.)
+ Example of a "non-count" noun:
Give peace a chance. ("Peace" is a noun, or thing, but in this case it cannot be counted or quantified.)
In addition, "a," "an," and "the" are NOT used in the following cases:
+ When discussing names of streets, cities, countries, or continents:
We flew to France last year.
Lake Superior is very chilly in the winter.
What do you want for Christmas this year?
First, ask yourself if the noun that needs to be modified is a common
or proper noun.
a. If the noun is proper, decide whether the noun is singular or plural.
b. If the proper noun is singular, then you will either use no article or the definite article "the."
Examples: The Grand Canyon is a great place to have a picnic.
England is my favorite vacation destination.
c. If the proper noun is plural, then you will either use no article or the definite article "the."
Examples: The Americans won every gold medal in that event.
Buddhists follow a very strict diet.
+ Common nouns:
a. If the noun is common, decide whether the noun is countable (items which can be counted; e.g. two books, three desks, etc.) or uncountable (also referred to as "mass" or "non-count" words, those which indicate material which cannot be counted; e.g. water, air, metal).
b. If the common noun is countable, decide whether the noun is singular or plural.
c. If the countable, common noun is singular, then you can use both
definite ("the") and indefinite articles ("a"
Examples: The computers all had their own monitors.
A cactus cannot survive too much rain.
An essay gets easier to write with revision.
d. If the countable, common noun is plural, then you can either use no article or the definite article "the."
Examples: Eggs are essential for good waffles.
The eggs were past their expiration date.
e. If the common noun is uncountable, then you can either use no article or the definite article "the."
Examples: Water is very scarce in the desert.
The water was contaminated by a nearby mine.
Remember, as with many grammatical aspects of the English language, not all of these rules apply all the time. There are many exceptions that are not covered in this page. If you are still confused about how to use definite articles, talk to your instructor, consult your grammar handbook, or come by the UNLV Writing Center for additional handouts and/or practice!
This page was written by Shannon Hammermeister, edited by AmiJo Comeford, and revised in 2012.
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