There are only three articles in the English language: aan and the. Although articles are their own part of speech, they’re technically also adjectives! Articles are used to describe which noun you’re referring to.

Simply put, when you’re talking about something general, use a and an. When you’re speaking about something specific, use the. “A cat” can be used to refer to any cat in the world. “The cat” is used to refer to the cat that just walked by.

Indefinite Articles: A and AN

“A” and “an” signal that the noun modified is indefinite, referring to any member of a group. For example:

When to Use “A”

A’ is used before words beginning with a consonant sound. For example:

  • A man
  • A hat
  • A lamp
  • A teacher
  • A cat
  • A book

When to Use “AN”

The article ‘an’ should be placed before words that begin with a vowel sound. The initial sound should be a, eio, or u. For example:

  • An apple
  • An egg
  • An island
  • An article
  • An umbrella
  • An hour
  • “I saw a bear at the zoo.” This refers to any bear. We don’t know which bear because we were told anything about the bear yet.
  • “Somebody call a nurse!” This refers to any nurse. We don’t need a specific nurse; we need any nurse who is available.
  • “I dated an American once!” Here, we’re talking about a single, non-specific thing, in this case an American. At this point we know nothing about the person, not even their gender.

Indefinite articles A and AN are used based on the sound of the word that follows them.

  • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant: a man; a car; a bike; a zoo; a dog
  • an + singular noun beginning with a vowel: an eagle; an egg; an apple; an idiot; an orphan
  • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant sound: a user (sounds like ‘yoo-zer,’ i.e. begins with a consonant ‘y’ sound, so ‘a’ is used); a universitya unicycle
  • an + nouns starting with silent “h”: an hour
  • a + nouns starting with a pronounced “h”: a horse
    • In some cases where “h” is pronounced, such as “historical,” you can use an. However, a is more commonly used and preferred. A historical event is worth recording.

Remember that these rules also apply when you use acronyms:

  • In simple terms the acronym stands for “Objectives and Key Results”. In more detail, an OKR can be defined as a rigorous goal setting and tracking method invented by Andrew Grove and used in Intel from its early years.
  • A key performance indicator (KPI) is a measurable value that demonstrates how effectively a company is achieving key business objectives.

Another case where this rule applies is when acronyms or initialism start with consonant letters but have vowel sounds: f, m, n, s, h, l, r, y…More on English Pronunciation here.

  • An MSDS (material safety data sheet) was used to record the data.
  • An SPCC plan (Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasures plan) will help us prepare for the worst.
  •  A travel trailer is an RV that hitches to the bed of your truck and follows behind you.

If the noun is modified by an adjective, the choice between a and an depends on the initial sound of the adjective that immediately follows the article:

  • a broken egg
  • an unusual problem
  • an avid reader
  • a European country (sounds like ‘yer-o-pi-an,’ i.e. begins with consonant ‘y’ sound)

Indefinite articles are used to indicate membership in a group:

  • I am a teacher. (I am a member of a large group known as teachers.)
  • Natan is an Israeli. (Natan is a member of the people known as Israeli.)
  • Seiko is a practicing Yogi. (Seiko is a member of the yoga community.)

Definite Article: THE

The definite article is used before singular and plural nouns when the noun is specific or particular. The signals that the noun is definite, that it refers to a particular member of a group. For example:

The dog that bit me ran away.” Here, we’re talking about a specific dog, the dog that bit me.

“I was happy to see the policeman who saved my cat!” Here, we’re talking about a particular policeman. Even if we don’t know the policeman’s name, it’s still a particular policeman because it is the one who saved the cat.

“I saw the elephant at the zoo.” Here, we’re talking about a specific noun. Probably there is only one elephant at the zoo.

Often when someone is “the one”, that person is the most suitable, the best candidate, for something. In particular, in a romantic context, “the one” is a true love, the person that someone is going to marry.

couple kissing the background - writing of definite article - the one


The can be used with noncount nouns, or the article can be omitted entirely.

  • “I love to sail over the water” (some specific body of water) or “I love to sail over water” (any water).
  • “He spilled the milk all over the floor” (some specific milk, perhaps the milk you bought earlier that day) or “He spilled milk all over the floor” (any milk).

“A/an” can be used only with count nouns.

  • “I need a bottle of water.”
  • “I need a new glass of milk.”

Most of the time, you can’t say, “She wants a water,” unless you’re implying, say, a bottle of water.


There are some specific rules for using the with geographical nouns.

Do not use the before:

  • names of most countries/territories: Italy, Mexico, Bolivia; however, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the United States
  • names of cities, towns, or states: Seoul, Manitoba, Miami
  • names of streets: Washington Blvd., Main St.
  • names of lakes and bays: Lake Titicaca, Lake Erie except with a group of lakes like the Great Lakes
  • names of mountains: Mount Everest, Mount Fuji except with ranges of mountains like the Andes or the Rockies or unusual names like the Matterhorn
  • names of continents (Asia, Europe)
  • names of islands (Easter Island, Maui, Key West) except with island chains like the Aleutians, the Hebrides, or the Canary Islands

Do use the before:

  • names of rivers, oceans and seas: the Nile, the Pacific
  • points on the globe: the Equator, the North Pole
  • geographical areas: the Middle East, the West
  • deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas: the Sahara, the Persian Gulf, the Black Forest, the Iberian Peninsula


Some common types of nouns that don’t take an article are:

  • Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian (unless you are referring to the population of the nation: “The Spanish are known for their warm hospitality.”)
  • Names of sports: volleyball, hockey, baseball
  • Names of academic subjects: mathematics, biology, history, computer science