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Writing Tips: Articles


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
known).

  • Example of an indefinite article:


While we sat in our backyard sipping iced tea, our cat chased a bird.

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.

  • Example of a definite article:


While we sat in our backyard sipping iced tea, our cat chased the parakeet.

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."

  • How to use definite articles:


As discussed above, the definite article modifies nouns (singular or plural) which can be counted or are definite; "the" also can identify a particular or specific noun in a group or a noun already identified in a previous sentence or phrase (Prentice Hall 309). Unfortunately, it's not always easy to decide when to use "the" and when not to, particularly if English is your second language. Here are some tips to consider while deciding whether or not to use the definite article "the"**:

+ 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.

  • How to use indefinite articles:


You can think of indefinite articles as meaning "one among many" (Prentice Hall 308). When trying to decide whether to use "a" or "an" in a sentence, look at the first letter of the noun following the indefinite article. If the noun begins with a consonant, you will use "a." If the noun begins with a vowel, you will use "an." Here are some examples:

+ Use of the indefinite article "a":

a cat
a star
a ball
a wind
a computer
a paper
a ring
a shoe
a watch


+ Use of the definite article "an":

an essay
an olive
an ear
an egg
an elbow
an ice-cream cone
an icicle
an idea
an apple

  • When not to use articles:


In some cases, you will not need to use either definite or indefinite articles when modifying nouns. In general, you do not need to use articles when discussing singular proper nouns (those which refer to a specific place, thing or person/people), unspecified plural nouns which mean "all" or "in general," or nouns that cannot be counted ("non-count" nouns):

+ 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:

Examples:

We flew to France last year.
The best route is to follow Maryland Parkway south.
Do you know the way to San Jose?
The rainforests of South America contain many diverse species.


+ When discussing names of lakes, mountains, languages, or sports:

Examples:

Lake Superior is very chilly in the winter.
Mount Charleston usually has snow on its peaks until mid-June.
She didn't learn how to speak Chinese until her second year in college.
Let's play basketball tonight.


+ When discussing names of holidays, universities, and colleges without "of" in the name, and academic subjects:

Examples:

What do you want for Christmas this year?
He plans on enrolling in Oberlin College next fall.
My sister studies sociology.
Halloween is our cousin's favorite holiday.

  • Article Flowchart:


Sometimes it is helpful to use a flowchart to help you determine whether or not to use definite or indefinite articles. Here is an "articles" flowchart and a description of steps to help you decide whether to use "a," "an," "the," or no article at all.

Proper Nouns
Common Nouns
Singular
Plural
Countable
Uncountable
Use definite article
"the" or no article
Use definite article
"the" or no article
Singular
Plural
Use definite article
"the" or no article
Use definite or
indefinite articles,
"a," "an," and "the"
Use definite
article "the" or
no article

First, ask yourself if the noun that needs to be modified is a common or proper noun.

+ Proper nouns:

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" or
"an"):

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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Thursday, 07-Jun-2012 10:19:58 PDT
Thursday, 07-Jun-2012 10:19:58 PDT