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English grammar series
English grammar

The articles in English include the definite article the and the indefinite articles a and an.


General usage

In English, nouns must in most cases be preceded by an article that specifies the definiteness of the noun. The definite article is the in all cases, while indefiniteness is expressed with a or an for singular nouns or the zero article (i.e., the absence of an article) for plural or non-count nouns.

singular plural/non-count
indefinite before vowel sound an (none)
before consonant sound a
definite the
English articles

For example,

The youngest boy brought books and an apple.

Here, youngest boy is definite, meaning that the listener will know which boy is the one, while books and apple are indefinite, as they are being mentioned for the first time.

English grammar requires that the appropriate article, if any, be used with each noun, with several exceptions:[1]

Rome was ruled by Augustus.
Nobody liked what he said.
  • nouns with another non-number determiner such as this, each, my, no, or a possessive
My sister wrote this song about America's history.

In most cases, the article is the first word of its noun phrase, preceding all other adjectives.[2] There are only a few exceptions—e.g., quite a story, too great a loss, all the time.

The little old red bag held a very big surprise.

In alphabetizing titles and phrases, articles are usually excluded from consideration, since being so common makes them more of a hindrance than a help in finding a desired item. For example, The Comedy of Errors is alphabetized before A Midsummer Night's Dream, because the and a are ignored and comedy alphabetizes before midsummer. In an index, the former work might be written "Comedy of Errors, The", with the article moved to the end.

In contexts where concision is especially valued, such as headlines, signs, labels, and notes, articles are often omitted along with certain other particles. For example, rather than The mayor is attacked, a newspaper headline would say just Mayor attacked.

Definite article

The definite article in English is the denoting person(s) or thing(s)already mentioned, under discussion,implied,or familiar.

The article "the" is used with singular and plural, and countable and uncountable nouns when both the speaker and listener would know the thing or idea already. The article the is often used as the very first part of a noun phrase in English.


According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, "the" is pronounced with a schwa (as in "uh") before words beginning with consonants (e.g. b, c, d, f), and usually with a different vowel sound /i/ (as "y" in "easy") before words beginning with vowels and in cases of proper nouns or emphasis.[3]

In some Northern England dialects of English, the is pronounced [t̪ə] (with a dental t) or as a glottal stop, usually written in eye dialect as <t>; in some dialects it reduces to nothing. This is known as definite article reduction.

In dialects that do not have /ð/ (voiced dental fricative), the is pronounced with a voiced dental plosive, as in /d̪ə/ or /d̪iː/).


The and that are common developments from the same Old English system. Old English had a definite article se, in the masculine gender, seo (feminine), and þæt (neuter). In Middle English these had all merged into þe, the ancestor of the Modern English word the.

In Middle English, the (þe) was frequently abbreviated as a þ with a small e above it, similar to the abbreviation for that, which was a þ with a small t above it. During the latter Middle English and Early Modern English periods, the letter Thorn (þ) in its common script, or cursive, form came to resemble a y shape. As such the use of a y with an e above it as an abbreviation became common. This can still be seen in reprints of the 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible in places such as Romans 15:29, or in the Mayflower Compact. Note that the article was never pronounced with a y sound, even when so written. (However the modern, 19th and 20th century pseudo-archaic usage such as "Ye Olde Englishe Tea Shoppe" can be pronounced with a y sound.)

Geographic uses

In English most cities and countries never take the definite article, but there are many that do. It is commonly used with many country names that derive from names of island groups (the Philippines), mountain ranges (the Lebanon), deserts (the Sudan), seas, rivers and geographic regions (the Middle East).[4] Such use is declining, but for some countries it remains common. Since the independence of Ukraine (or the Ukraine), most style guides have advised dropping the article[5], in part because the Ukrainian Government was concerned about a similar issue involving prepositions. Another example is Argentina, which is now more usual than 'the Argentine', which is old fashioned, although others continue, such as The Bronx and The Hague.

The definite article is always used for countries whose names are descriptions of the form of the state rather than being purely geographical; for example, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Czech Republic.

The U.S. Department of State[6] and CIA World Factbook[7] show the definite article with only two countries: The Bahamas and The Gambia.

Similarly, in other languages some geographic names take the article while others do not: die Schweiz, Switzerland, in German; les Pays-Bas, the Netherlands or Low Countries, in French.

Indefinite article

"A" and "an" function as the indefinite forms of the grammatical article in the English language and can also represent the number one. An is the older form (related to one, cognate to German ein; etc), now used before words starting with a vowel sound, regardless of whether the word begins with a vowel letter.[8] Examples: a light-water reactor; an LWR (Note: When an acronym is spelled out, rather than spelling out what it is that is represented by the letters in the acronym, the phonetics of the acronym should be used when reading the text aloud. So the use of "a" or "an" as shown in this example is correct based on the proper application of this rule); a sanitary sewer overflow; an SSO; a HEPA filter (because HEPA is pronounced as a word rather than as letters); an hour; a ewe; a one-armed bandit; an heir; a unicorn (begins with 'yu', a consonant sound).

Juncture loss

In a process called juncture loss, the n has wandered back and forth between words beginning with vowels over the history of the language, where sometimes it would be a nuncle and is now an uncle. The Oxford English Dictionary gives such examples as smot hym on the hede with a nege tool from 1448 for smote him on the head with an edge tool and a nox for an ox and a napple for an apple. Sometimes the change has been permanent. For example, a newt was once an ewt (earlier euft and eft), a nickname was once an eke-name, where eke means "extra" (as in eke out meaning "add to"), and in the other direction, "a napron" became "an apron" and "a naddre" became "an adder." "Napron" itself meant "little tablecloth" and is related to the word "napkin". An oft-cited but inaccurate example is an orange: despite what is often claimed, English never used a norange. Although the initial n was in fact lost through juncture loss, this happened before the word was borrowed in English (see orange (word)).

Discrimination between a and an

The choice of "a" or "an" is determined by phonetic rules rather than by spelling convention. "An" is employed in speech to remove the awkward glottal stop (momentary silent pause) that is otherwise required between "a" and a following word. For example, "an X-ray" is less awkward to pronounce than "a X-ray," which has a glottal stop between "a" and "X-ray". The following paragraphs are spelling rules for "an" that can be used if the phonetic rule is not understood.

The form "an" is always prescribed before words beginning with a silent h, such as "honorable", "heir", "hour", and, in American English, "herb".[9] Some British dialects (for example, Cockney) silence all initial h's (h-dropping) and so employ "an" all the time: e.g., "an 'elmet". Many British usage books,[citation needed] therefore, discount a usage which some Americans (amongst others) employ as being a derivative of the Cockney.[citation needed] The reason is that the indefinite article a is pronounced either of two ways: as a schwa, or as the letter itself is pronounced, "long a" (actually a diphthong, /eɪ/). Some words beginning with the letter h have the primary stress on the second or later syllable. Pronouncing a as a schwa can diminish the sound of the schwa and melt into the vowel. Pronouncing it as a "long a" does not do this, but as the pronunciation cannot be prescribed, the word is spelled the same for either. Hence an may be seen in such phrases as "an historic", "an heroic", "an hôtel of excellence", in both British and American usage.[9] Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage allows "both a and an are used in writing a historic an historic".[10]

An analogous distinction to that of "a" and "an" was once present for possessive determiners as well. For example, "my" and "thy" became "mine" and "thine" before a vowel, as in "mine eyes". This usage is now obsolete.

The appearance of an or a in front of words beginning with h is not limited to stress. Sometimes there are historical roots as well. Words that may have had a route into English via French (where all hs are unpronounced) may have an to avoid an unusual pronunciation. Words that derived from German however would use a as the hs would be pronounced. There is even some suggestion that fashion may have had some influence. When England was ruled by a French aristocracy, the tradition may have been to exclusively use an, while when Britain was governed by a German-based monarchy the tide may have changed to a.[citation needed]

Further, some words starting with vowels may have a preceding a because they are pronounced as if beginning with an initial consonant. "Ewe" and "user" have a preceding a because they are pronounced with an initial y consonant sound. "One-armed bandit" also has a preceding a because it is pronounced with an initial w consonant sound.

To add emphasis to a noun, the preceding indefinite article is often pronounced as a long a (just as the definite article would be pronounced as "thee" in such cases), whether or not the schwa, or even "an" would be the appropriate usage. In recent years, there has been a noticeable trend to pronouncing almost all indefinite articles in this way,[citation needed] especially in radio or television announcements or news-reading.

Representing the number one

In addition to serving as an article, a and an are also used as synonyms for the number one, as in "make a wish", "a hundred". An was originally an unstressed form of the number án 'one'.

A and an are also used to express a proportional relationship, such as "a dollar a day" or "$150 an ounce" or "A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play", although historically this use of "a" and "an" does not come from the same word as the articles.

The mathematically-minded might heed H. S. Wall's reminder that the statement "I have a son" does not necessarily imply that "I have exactly one son" or that "I have only sons". In other words, "The little words count."[11]

Similarities in other languages

In Hungarian, a and az are used the same way, except that in Hungarian, a(z) is the definite article. Juncture loss occurred in this case as well, since az was the only article in use in 16th century Hungarian (e.g. in the poetry of Bálint Balassa).

In Greek, a- and an-, meaning "not" or "without", are root words, cognate with Latin in- (when used as a negative) and English un-, meaning without.

Italian has many articles (8 + juncture loss) basically expressing the same ideas of definite and indefinite as English ones. The article the corresponds to il, lo, la, i, gli or le indifferently (remembering that Italian has masculine and feminine nouns, so that it is not indifferent to join any one of those articles with any Italian noun, indiscriminately) and the English articles a / an corresponds to Italian un or una (again, the masculine / feminine distinction must be taken into account). Moreover, no geographical rule applies to any of the Italian articles corresponding to the article the, so that, for example, it is correct to say la Germania which means Germany, in English.

See also

External links


  1. ^ Greenbaum, Sidney (1996) The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-861250-8
  2. ^ Disterheft, Dorothy (2004) Advanced Grammar. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice-Hall ISBN 0-13-048820-8
  3. ^ "the - definition". Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. 
  4. ^ Swan, Michael How English Works, p. 25
  5. ^ Ukraine or "the Ukraine"? by Andrew Gregorovich
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ How to Use Articles (a/an/the) - The OWL at Purdue
  9. ^ a b Peters, Pam (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 1. ISBN 0-521-62181-X. 
  10. ^ "A". Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. Retrieved 25 January 2010. 
  11. ^ Hubert Stanley Wall, Creative Mathematics

THE is a three-letter acronym that may refer to:

  • Technische Hogeschool Eindhoven (Eindhoven University of Technology), a Dutch university of technology
  • The Hessling Editor, a text editor modeled on the VM/CMS editor XEDIT
  • Times Higher Education, a British magazine which focuses on issues around Higher Education in the UK and beyond.
  • The Human Equation, an album by progressive metal musical project Ayreon
  • The Humane Environment (now known as Archy), designed by human-computer interface expert Jef Raskin
  • Transhiatal esophagectomy, a type of surgery
  • Texas hold'em a type of poker game

See also

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