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An article (abbreviated art) is a word that combines with a noun to indicate the type of reference being made by the noun. Articles specify the grammatical definiteness of the noun, in some languages extending to volume or numerical scope. The articles in the English language are the, a, and an.

Among the classical parts of speech, articles are considered a special category of adjectives. Some modern linguists prefer to classify them within a separate part of speech, determiners.

In languages that employ articles, every common noun, with some exceptions, is expressed with a certain definiteness (e.g., definite or indefinite), just as many languages express every noun with a certain grammatical number (e.g., singular or plural). Every noun must be accompanied by the article, if any, corresponding to its definiteness, and the lack of an article (considered a zero article) itself specifies a certain definiteness. This is in contrast to other adjectives and determiners, which are typically optional. This obligatory nature of articles makes them among the most common words in many languages—in English, for example, the most frequent word is the.[1]



Articles are usually characterized as either definite or indefinite.[2] A few languages with well-developed systems of articles may distinguish additional subtypes.

Within each type, languages may have various forms of each article, according to grammatical attributes such as gender, number, or case, or according to adjacent sounds.


Definite article

A definite article indicates that its noun is a particular one (or ones) identifiable to the listener. It may be the same thing that the speaker has already mentioned, or it may be something uniquely specified. The definite article in English is the.

The children knew the fastest way home.

Indefinite article

An indefinite article indicates that its noun is not yet a particular one (or ones) identifiable to the listener. It may be something that the speaker is mentioning for the first time, or its precise identity may be irrelevant or hypothetical, or the speaker may be making a general statement about any such thing. English uses a or an (depending on the initial sound of the next word) as its indefinite article.

She had a house so large that an elephant would get lost without a map.

Partitive article

A partitive article is a type of indefinite article used with a mass noun such as water, to indicate a non-specific quantity of it. Partitive articles are used in French and Italian in addition to definite and indefinite articles. The nearest equivalent in English is some, although this is considered a determiner and not an article.

French: Vous-voulez du café ?
Do you want (some) coffee?
See also more information about the French partitive article.

Negative article

A negative article specifies none of its noun, and can thus be regarded as neither definite nor indefinite. On the other hand, some consider such a word to be a simple determiner rather than an article. In English, this function is fulfilled by no.

No man is an island.

Zero article

The zero article is the absence of an article. In languages having a definite article, the lack of an article specifically indicates that the noun is indefinite. Linguists interested in X-bar theory causally link zero articles to nouns lacking a determiner.[3] In English, the zero article rather than the indefinite is used with plurals and mass nouns.

Visitors walked in mud.

Variation among languages

Articles in European languages      indefinite and definite articles      only definite articles      indefinite and postfixed definite articles      only postfixed definite articles      no articles

Among the world's most widely spoken languages, articles are found almost exclusively in Indo-European and Semitic languages; Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Malay, and Russian have no articles, strictly speaking, even though certain words may optionally be used like articles if needed.

Linguists believe that the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages (i.e., the Proto-Indo-European language) did not have articles. Most of the languages in this family do not have definite or indefinite articles; there is no article in Latin, Sanskrit, Persian, nor in some modern Indo-European languages, such as the Baltic languages and most Slavic languages. Although Classical Greek has a definite article, the earlier Homeric Greek did not. Articles developed independently in several language families.

Not all languages have both definite and indefinite articles. Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew have only a definite article; having only an indefinite article, on the other hand, is far less common. Some languages have different types of definite and indefinite articles to distinguish finer shades of meaning; for example, French and Italian have a partitive article used for indefinite mass nouns, while Macedonian uses definite articles in a demonstrative sense, distinguishing this from that.

In many languages, the form of the article may vary according to the grammatical gender, number, or case of its noun. (In some languages the article may be the only indicator of the case, e.g., German Der Hut des Napoleon, Napoleon's hat.) Many languages do not use articles at all, and may use other ways of indicating old versus new information, such as topic-comment constructions.

Articles used in the world's most widely spoken languages
Language definite article indefinite article partitive article
Arabic al- (none)
English the a, an
German der, die, das ein, eine
Dutch de, het een
Spanish el, la, los, las un, una
Portuguese o, a, os, as um, uma
French le, la, les un, une
du, de la, des
singular: il, lo, la
plural: i, gli, le
un, uno, una della, delle, del, dei, degli, dello

In the above examples, the article always precedes its noun. In some languages, however, the definite article is not always a separate word, but may be postfixed, attached to the end of its noun as a suffix. For example,

  • Albanian: plis, a white fez, plisi the white fez
  • Romanian: drum, road; drumul, the road
  • Icelandic: hestur, horse; hesturinn, the horse
  • Norwegian: stol, chair; stolen, the chair
  • Swedish: hus house; huset the house
  • Bulgarian: стол stol, chair; столът stolǎt, the chair (subject); стола stola, the chair (object)
  • Macedonian: столот (stolot) the chair, столов (stolov) this chair, столон (stolon) that chair


Articles have developed independently in many different language families across the globe. Generally, more ancient languages tend to lack articles, and articles develop over time usually by specialization of certain adjectives.

Joseph Greenberg [4][5] describes "the cycle of the definite article": Definite articles (Stage I) evolve from demonstratives, and in turn can become generic articles (Stage II) that may be used in both definite and indefinite contexts, and later merely noun markers (Stage III) that are part of nouns other than proper names and more recent borrowings. Eventually articles may evolve anew from demonstratives.

Definite articles

Definite articles typically arise from demonstratives meaning that. For example, the definite articles in the Romance languages—e.g., el, il, le, la—derive from the Latin demonstratives ille (masculine) and illa (feminine).

The English definite article the, written þe in Middle English, derives from an Old English demonstrative, which, according to gender, was written se (masculine), seo (feminine), or þæt (neuter). The neuter form þæt also gave rise to the modern demonstrative that. The ye occasionally seen in pseudo-archaic usage such as "Ye Olde Englishe Tea Shoppe" is actually a form of þe, where the letter thorn (þ) came to be written as a y.

Multiple demonstratives can give rise to multiple definite articles. Macedonian, for example, in which the articles are suffixed, has столот (stolot), the chair; столов (stolov), this chair; and столон (stolon), that chair.

Indefinite articles

Indefinite articles typically arise from adjectives meaning one. For example, the indefinite articles in the Romance languages—e.g., un, una, une—derive from the Latin adjective unus. Partitive articles, however, derive from Vulgar Latin de illo, meaning (some) of the.

The English indefinite article an is derived from the same root as one. The -n came to be dropped before consonants, giving rise to the shortened form a. The existence of both forms has led to many cases of juncture loss, e.g. transforming the original a napron into the modern an apron.

See also


  1. ^ World English. "The 500 Most Commonly Used Words in the English Language". Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  2. ^ The Use and Non-Use of Articles
  3. ^ [1] Master, Peter (1997) "The English Article System: acquisition, function, and pedagogy" in: System, Volume 25, Issue 2, pp. 215–232
  4. ^ Universals of human language
  5. ^ Genetic Linguistics

External links


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