Articles – General rules

What are articles?

Simply put, articles are the words a, an and the.


What is their function?

Articles are placed before nouns and noun phrases. Their function is to establish whether the nouns being spoken about are definite or indefinite. They specify the grammatical definiteness of the noun.

There are therefore only two types of articles; definite and indefinite.

What are nouns?

The words that fall under the group nouns are: objects, food, animals, people, places, official names, illnesses, qualities, states of mind and ideas.

Growing up, we were told that nouns were “naming words.” This is because nouns give names to things, so that we have a mutual understanding of what we are talking about. Let’s take the word “paper,” for example. If you say to me, “Please pass me the paper,” I can do so without asking further questions, because I understand what a”paper” is. The noun “paper” is the common name for the white thing that we write on.


General article rules

Definite vs indefinite

“The” is a definite or specific article.

It is used when you are speaking about something in specific. It singles out what you are talking about, from others with the same name.  For example, “I would like the grey cat” suggests that out of all the cats, in the room, you have chosen the grey one. In other words, you don’t want just any grey cat; you want that specific one.

The definite article is also used to speak about something that the listener or already knows about, it might be something that you have already spoken about; that is common knowledge between the two of you. When someone asks, “Have you seen the cat?” it suggests that the person being asked knows exactly what cat is being spoken about.

“A” and “an” are indefinite or non-specific articles.

They are used when you are speaking about something in general, and not a specific one. For example, “I would like a grey cat” suggests that, in general, you would like a grey cat (any grey cat). You are not talking about one specific cat, but rather, you are just describing what kind of cat you would like.

When someone asks, “Have you seen a cat before?” they are not asking about a specific cat. It could be any kind of cat, from anywhere. They just want to know if you have seen an animal called a “cat” before.


Indefinite articles

“A” vs “an”

Vowels: a, e, i, o, u

Consonants: all the other letters of the alphabet

“A” and “an” serve the same function.

Which one to use, is determined by the starting sound of the word immediately after it.  We use “a” before a word that starts with a consonant sound, and “an” before a word that starts with a vowel sound.


Would you like a cup of coffee? (a + consonant)

That is an excellent idea. (an + vowel)

Yes, I do know how to use a computer. (a + consonant)

I’m not sure if I would look good in an orange dress. (an + vowel)


Silent first consonant (H)

Words starting with silent “H”: hour, honest, honor, heir, heirloom

Americans pronounce “herb” as “erb.”

The indefinite article is determined by the starting sound of the word after it, and not the actual letter. Some words, when written, start with the consonant “H,” but when spoken, sound like they start with vowels, because the “H” is silent. Although words like “hour” and “honest” start with the consonant “H,” when spoken, they sound like “our” and “onest.” Because of this, we place the article “an” before them.


I will be back in an hour. (an + silent “h”)

There is nothing more valuable than an honest person. (an + silent “h”)

He was wearing a hooded sweater. (a + voiced “h”)

I need a hot cup of coffee right now. (a + voiced “h”)


Vowels that sound like consonants

Starting vowels that sound like “YOO”: universe, university, unique, Europe, unicorn, unit, Uganda, uranium, use, usual, utensil, U.F.O, utility

Some words, when written, may start with vowels or vowel blends, but sound like they start with the consonant “Y.” Although the word “unicorn” starts with the vowel “U,” when spoken, it sounds like “yoo-ni-korn.”


He claims to have seen a unicorn. (a + “yoo” sound) /ˈjuːnɪkɔːn/

Are you studying at a university or a college? (a + “yoo” sound) /ˌjuːnɪˈvɜːsɪti/

He doesn’t have an umbrella. (an + “aa” sound) /ʌmˈbrɛlə/

That is an unusual way of looking at things. (an + “aa” sound) /ʌnˈjuːʒʊəl/


The indefinite article (a/an) is singular.

It is derived from the Middle English “an” meaning “one.” It is due to this, that the indefinite article cannot be used with plurals.


A day. = One day.

I will be back in an hour. = I will be back in one hour.

Here is a dollar. = Here is one dollar.



  1. […] When I ask, “Have you seen a man?” you can assume that I asking about any man. You will most likely answer, “Yes,” because you have seen a lot of men throughout the the day. If I ask, “Have you seen the man?” you may answer, “Yes,” if you know who I am talking about, or ask, “Which man?” if you are not sure. Whichever the case, the article “the” lets you know that I am talking about one particular man. (See general article rules). […]


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