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Because the article system is so complex and often idiosyncratic, it is especially difficult for non-native English speakers to master. This handout explains three basic rules that are the foundation of the article system and two basic questions that will help you choose the correct article in your writing. It provides examples of articles being used in context, and it ends with a section on special considerations for nouns in academic writing.
As you use the handout, try to keep three things in mind:
This is a simple list, but understanding it and remembering it is crucial to using articles correctly.
Rule # 1: Every time a noun is mentioned, the writer is referring to:
Rule # 2: Every kind of reference has a choice of articles:
(Ø = no article)
Rule # 3: The choice of article depends upon the noun and the context. This will be explained more fully below.
To choose the best article, ask yourself these questions:
Your answers to these questions will usually determine the correct article choice, and the following sections will show you how.
Talking about “all of them everywhere” is also called “generic reference.” We use it to make generalizations: to say something true of all the nouns in a particular group, like an entire species of animal.
When you mean “all of them everywhere,” you have three article choices: Ø, a/an, the. The choice of article depends on the noun. Ask yourself, “What kind of noun is it?”
Note: We use this form (the + singular) most often in technical and scientific writing to generalize about classes of animals, body organs, plants, musical instruments, and complex inventions. We do not use this form for simple inanimate objects, like books or coat racks. For these objects, use (Ø + plural).
Here’s a simple test you can use to identify generic references while you’re reading. To use this test, substitute “all [plural noun] everywhere” for the noun phrase. If the statement is still true, it’s probably a generic reference.
You’ll probably find generic references most often in the introduction and conclusion sections and at the beginning of a paragraph that introduces a new topic.
Talking about “one of many” is also called “indefinite reference.” We use it when the noun’s exact identity is unknown to one of the participants: the reader, the writer, or both. Sometimes it’s not possible for the reader or the writer to identify the noun exactly; sometimes it’s not important. In either case, the noun is just “one of many.” It’s “indefinite.”
When you mean “one of many,” you have two article choices: Ø, a/an. The choice of article depends on the noun. Ask yourself, “What kind of noun is it?”
Note: We use many different expressions for an indefinite quantity of plural or non-count nouns. Words like “some,” “several,” and “many” use no article (e.g., We need some volunteers to help this afternoon. We really need several people at 3:00.) One exception: “a few” + plural noun (We need a few people at 3:00.)
In certain situations, we always use “a” or “an.” These situations include:
Note: The writer does not change from “a break” to “the break” with the second mention because she is not referring to one break in particular (“this break exactly”). It’s indefinite—any break will be fine!!
Talking about “this one exactly” is also called “definite reference.” We use it when both the reader and the writer can identify the exact noun that is being referred to.
When you mean “this one exactly,” you have two article choices: Ø, the. The choice of article depends on the noun and on the context. Ask yourself, “What kind of noun is it?”
In certain situations, we always use “the” because the noun or the context makes it clear that we’re talking about “this one exactly.” The context might include the words surrounding the noun or the context of knowledge that people share. Examples of these situations include:
For the more visually oriented, this flowchart sketches out the basic rules and basic questions.
As the name suggests, uncountable nouns (also called non-count or mass nouns) are things that can not be counted. They use no article for generic and indefinite reference, and use “the” for definite reference. Uncountable nouns fall into several categories:
Note: Different languages might classify nouns differently
Strategy: Check a dictionary. A learner’s dictionary will indicate whether the noun is countable or not. A regular dictionary will give a plural form if the noun is countable.
Note: Some nouns have both count and non-count meanings
Some nouns have both count and non-count meanings in everyday usage. Some non-count nouns have count meanings only for specialists in a particular field who consider distinct varieties of something that an average person would not differentiate.
Non-count meanings follow the rules for non-count nouns (generic and indefinite reference: no article; definite: “the”); count meanings follow the count rules (a/an for singular, no article for plural). Can you see the difference between these examples?
Proper nouns (names of people, places, religions, languages, etc.) are always definite. They take either “the” or no article. Use “the” for regions (like the Arctic) and for a place that’s made up of a collection of smaller parts (like a collection of islands, mountains, lakes, etc.).
Note: Proper nouns in theory names may or may not take articles
When a person’s name is part of a theory, device, principle, law, etc., use “the” when the name does not have a possessive apostrophe. Do not use “the” when the name has an apostrophe.
|the Doppler effect||Einstein’s theory of relativity|
|the Pareto index||Murphy’s law|
|the Reimann hypothesis||Halley’s comet|
Note: Articles change when proper nouns function as adjectives
Notice how the article changes with “Great Lakes” in the examples below. When place names are used as adjectives, follow the article rule for the noun they are modifying.
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We consulted these works while writing the original version of this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial.
Byrd, Patricia and Beverly Benson. Problem/Solution: A Reference for ESL Writers. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1993.
Celce-Murcia, Marianne and Diane Larsen-Freeman. The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course. 2nd edition. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1999.
Swales, John and Christine Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Skills and Tasks. 2nd edition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.
The following online article is especially helpful because it has exercises at the end:
Kohl, John R. “Article Usage.” The Writing Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Available at http://www.rpi.edu/dept/llc/writecenter/web/esl.html
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