Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Basic rules

Articles (a/an, the) precede nouns and some other words in a noun phrase, e.g. few, little, adjectives. The article is usually the first word in a noun phrase, but note:

• all/both/half + the: all the information, both the twins

• quite/rather/such/what/half + a/an: quite a difficult problem

We use the indefinite article (a/an) with singular countable nouns: a garage, an opinion. We use the definite article (the) with singular countable nouns (the garage), with plural nouns (the latest computers) and uncountable nouns (the purest water). We can omit the with uncountable and plural nouns.

Naming, describing and classifying

We use a/an when we name or describe something:
That’s a scarab beetle.  ‘What’s that?’  ‘It’s an enormous anthill.’

We use a/an when we refer to one example of a class or a species:

An African elephant has larger ears than an Indian elephant.

We use the to refer to the whole class or species:

The African elephant has larger ears than the Indian elephant.

However, it is more common to refer to the whole class with the plural:

African elephants have larger ears than Indian elephants.

!  We do not use a/an to refer to a whole class rather than individual examples:

x  Ruthless poachers hunt an elephant for the valuable ivory of its tusks. 
 ٧ Ruthless poachers hunt the elephant for the valuable ivory of its tusks.
٧ Ruthless poachers hunt elephants for the valuable ivory of their tusks.

We can also use the with an adjective to refer to a class of people:

The homeless will be removed from the streets and placed in hostels.

Known or unknown topics

We use a/an when the topic (noun) is not known to our listener/reader; we use the when it is known. Therefore, we usually use a/an for the first reference to a topic in a text, but then use the for subsequent references:

A new travel guide has advised would-be tourists to Morecambe that it is a place to avoid. ... The guide paints a bleak – if not third-world – picture.

We do not always have to mention something for it to be known to the listener. We consider that it is known in the following situations:

something is unique
We are in danger of permanently damaging the Earth.

Muhammad Ali is the greatest heavyweight boxer ever.

the context makes it 'known'
‘Has Edward arrived yet?’ ‘Yes, he’s in the dining room.’ (= the dining room of the house we are in)

a defining phrase makes it 'known'
Oasis is the Manchester band that shot to fame in the early 1990s.

a prepositional phrase makes it 'known'
Meet me in the cafe next to the underground station near my house.

General and specific

With plural nouns we use either the or no article. We don’t use an article when we want to refer to a group or class in general

Tourists are often blamed for changing the character of a place. (= all tourists)
Did you notice what the tourists in the cathedral were doing? (= specific tourists)
It is commonly accepted today that brown bread is good for you.
Did you remember to get the bread out of the freezer?

We only use an article before an abstract noun if we wish to make an abstract noun more specific, e.g. to talk about a particular type of hope:

x  It is impossible to live in a world without the hope
٧  It is impossible to live in a world without hope. (hope in general)
    The hope of finding a cure for cancer drives a lot of medical research.

Nouns such as church, hospital, school do not take an article if we think of their purpose, i.e. church as a place of worship, or school as a place of learning:

Fewer people attend church regularly now than twenty years ago.
Can children leave school at fourteen in your country?

If we think of the physical place or building, we use an article:

The collection for restoring the church has almost reached its target.
Is there a school in the village or do the children have to go to the town?

Other common uses of articles

jobs, nationalities and beliefs: I'm a structural engineer. Helmut's an Austrian. Cat Stevens became a Muslim. ?
numbers: a hundred thousand
prices, speeds, etc: two dollars a kilo, 20km an hour

1. We can use these without an article if we put the noun before the person’s name:

Irishman Eddie Jordan has put together a team of great quality and spirit.

some geographical names: plurals (the United States, the US), areas (the West), mountain ranges (the Pyrenees), oceans or seas (the Pacific Ocean, the Black Sea), rivers (the Rhone)
musical instruments: She plays the violin.
the media: All our family work in the theatre. ?
in some comparative phrases: the more the merrier, all the better
in front of superlatives and first, last, next, only, same, right, wrong: the most dangerous profession, the last time, the only one
in measurements: You can buy saffron by the gram.
physical environments: I prefer the town to the country.
newspapers: the Times, the Herald Tribune, the Daily Mirror
dates when spoken: the tenth of May

2. We often use television, cinema, etc. without an article to refer to the art or entertainment form: She works in television. I’m studying film in my final year.

If we refer to a specific item we use the article:

Don’t put flowers on the television.
Have you seen the new film by Ridley Scott?

no article
proper names: James, Chris Graham, Mr Jones?
names of most countries, mountains, lakes: Japan, Mount Everest, Lake Victoria
substances, liquids and gases: Cooking oil is simply liquid fat.
materials: This blouse is made of silk.
political or business roles: Lagos became President of Chile in 2000.
transport: We're going by rail to London, then by plane.
times and seasons: at night, in summer, at dusk4
meal(time)s: Have you had breakfast? See you at lunch.
sports: She plays both tennis and squash very well.
illnesses: He's got lung cancer. She's had German measles.

3. We use a/an if we want to make a name less specific:

A Mr Jones came to see you this afternoon. (I don’t know which Mr Jones.)

We can make a name more specific by using the:

The Mr Jones with the stutter came to see you. (The stutter identifies this Mr Jones.)

4. Although we don’t usually use an article with seasons, it is possible to use the: in the spring/the summer, and note that we use the with parts of the day: in the afternoon.

!  We usually use a possessive adjective (not the) to refer to parts of the body:

Put your hand up if you know the answer.

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