Definite and Indefinite Articles: How to Use “The” and “A”

Decades ago, I studied abroad in Moscow, in the Soviet Union. One day, my Russian friends and I were walking along at VDNkh and came across a billboard that read Выставка Прогресса Vystavka Progressa. One friend decided to translate the billboard: “The exhibition of the progress.”

“Uh, no,” I responded. “Just ‘the exhibition of progress.'”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

Native speakers of English usually have no trouble with the use of the definite article the or the indefinite article a/an, but we can’t always explain the rule for their use. And non-native speakers, especially ones whose native languages are like Russian and lack both definite and indefinite articles, often have a really hard time figuring out when to use them.

So, for the benefit of learners of English and native speakers alike, let’s explore how definite and indefinite articles in English are used.

The Definite Article

The definite article the has a number of uses.

That

Historically, the is just a worn down version of that and functions like a weaker version of that word. One of the main functions of the is to identify some object already spoken of:

(1)Sample sentence 1
(2)Sample sentence 2

In each of the above sentences, the is used to identify something already spoken of. Without the previous context, the reader would not necessarily know which car, book, or cake was being described.

Unique or Particular Nouns

Some nouns are unique or particular enough that a listener can be presumed to know what or who is being talked about.

(4)I went to the palace and saw the Emperor.
(5)I love sitting outside under the Sun.

Unlike the cases with “I parked the car in the driveway” and “She tasted the cake,” it is far less likely that someone would hear sentences (4) and (5) and ask, “Which Emperor?” or “Which Sun?” Thus, these nouns are used with the because they are presumed to be either unique (there’s only one) or obvious in what they’re referring to.

Superlatives

Superlative adjectives like greatest, best, and smartest require a definite article before them:

(6)She is the smartest student in the class.
(7)The Flatiron Building was once the tallest building in New York.

Setting the Scene

Ordinarily, definite articles are not used when the noun in question is not generally known or has not been mentioned before. However, the opening lines in literature often violate this rule:

(8)The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.1Stephen King, The Gunslinger
(9)The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry.2Thomas Hardy, Judy the Obscure

In these examples, the definite article is used to set the scene, creating a sense of immediacy and drawing the reader into the world the author is presenting. Sometimes, the use of a definite article at the beginning of a text draws the reader into familiar concepts or archetypes, invoking a shared understanding or cultural reference.

Exceptions

Uncountable Nouns

The definite article is frequently omitted with uncountable nouns like water, inspiration, or progress (to answer my Russian friend’s question above).

(10)Water is essential for life.
(11)Inspiration can be fleeting
(12)Progress is not inevitable.

However, on occasion, when referring to a specific instance of an uncountable noun, you can use the definite article. In fact, the use of the definite article is what helps the reader to understand that you are talking about some specific instance of an otherwise uncountable noun.

(13)The water in this brook is really fresh and clean.
(14)The inspiration she received from her travels helped her paint her masterpiece.
(15)The progress our team has made is really impressive.

General Sense

The definite article is not even used before countable nouns, when those nouns are used in a general sense:

(16)I like dogs more than cats.
(17)Grammar can be difficult to understand.

Nor is the definite article used before most proper nouns: Maria, Italy, Neptune. In some cases, however, the definite article is used where the proper name has a more explicit or literal meaning, such as the United States (i.e., states that are united), the United Kingdom (i.e., a kingdom that was united from two other kingdoms), and the Netherlands (i.e., the low countries).

The Indefinite Article

The indefinite article a (or an before vowel sounds) is a worn-down version of the word one. It is used in the following ways.

Nouns Mentioned for the First Time

When a noun is introduced in a discourse, it is introduced with a/an. Once the noun’s identity is established, then the definite article can be used, as seen in sentences 1–3 above:

(1)I bought a car. Then, I parked the car in the driveway.
(2)I showed you a book earlier. Have you seen the book?
(3)Sarah made a cake. She tasted the cake and was pleased with it.

Representing a Class or Category

If a noun is representing a class or category, it is usually preceded by the definite article:

(18)A hound is a particular type of dog.
(19)A fool and his money are soon parted.
(20)A favorite family tradition at Christmas is the baking of cookies.

Exceptions

Uncountable Nouns

An indefinite article can’t be used in front of an uncountable noun (*a water, *an advice) or in front of plural nouns (*a dogs, *an elephants)—remember, a/an is just another version of one.

Clipped Writing

Often, for purposes of brevity and space, newspaper headlines and other bulletin items omit definite and indefinite articles.

(21)President Rejects Treaty
(22)Crime decreases in city; rural levels unchanged
(23)Acme Corp. announces settlement agreement in lawsuit

In ordinary, standard, and formal writing, these sentences would be The president rejects the treaty, Crime decreases in the city; rural levels are unchanged, and Acme Corp. announces a settlement agreement in a lawsuit (or the lawsuit if the reader is expected to know which lawsuit is being referenced).

Conclusion

The usage of definite and indefinite articles in English is often difficult for non-native speakers to get a feel for, especially if your native language doesn’t have any articles. Of course, English articles can even be a struggle for non-native speakers of English whose native languages do have articles (such as people from La France and die Schweiz).

Hopefully, these rules will give you a little guidance to help you navigate the tricky waters of English article usage. And if you get lost, have no fear—we at Schaefer Wordsmithing are here to help!