Definitely use “the” or “a”

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When to use the indefinite article a and when to use the definite article the depends mostly on how specific you want to be. During a wedding ceremony the groom would say, “Give me the ring! The wedding ring!” because he must have a particular ring, while a carpenter would say, ‘Hand me a nail” because he doesn’t care which nail in the box he uses. Usually the bigger problem is not whether to use a definite or indefinite article, but whether to use an article at all.

So many choices! When do you use a? When do you use an? When do you use the? But relax. We’ll guide the way. We already talked about when to use a when to use an in the article Give me an “A”: a vs. an, but we’ll give you a few more examples here.

  • A: you use this when you’re not necessarily referring to a specific thing (such as a nail, any nail). It’s called an indefinite article, because you’re not being definite or particular. There are many nails in this big world.
    • She owns a cat.
    • I work on a golf course.
  • An: it’s used just like a, but when preceding a vowel sound. It probably comes from Old German, on which Old English was based. My theory is that the use of an survives after all these centuries because it sounds better before vowels. Saying, “I want a apple” sounds odd, compared to, “I want an apple.” For the same reason, the fake French sentence, “À Anne, on en a un,” sounds even more odd.
    • May I borrow an egg?
    • He is an arrogant critic.
  • The: you’re talking about a definite item, which is why the is called a definite article. Of course it only makes sense if both you and your listeners know which item you mean. If I commanded you, “Give me the money,” you would rightfully ask, “What money? I don’t owe you any money.”
    • The house on that corner once belonged to Charles Dickens.
    • The weather is very pleasant today.
  • You can use the the second time you refer to something, even if you used an the first time. We know what you’re referring to, because you just told us. You can do this, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Read these examples – repeating the noun might sound monotonous.
    • We visited a palace on our vacation. The palace was built in 1546.
    • We also went to a concert. The concert was too loud for me.
  • When it comes to geography, you don’t use the before the names of most nations, provinces, states,lakes or islands. But there are many exceptions: the United States, the Ukraine, or the Congo. On the other hand, the Ukrainians and Congolese people I’ve met say, “Ukraine” and “Congo,” so go figure. If the name refers to plural items, such as the United States, or the Maldives, you would use the definite article. You would do the same for rivers and oceans, such as the Amazon, the Nile, and the Caspian Sea. Bays need the definite article.
    • He moved to Nepal near Mount Everest.
    • They spent their honeymoon in eastern Maine, on Penobscot Bay.
  • Unlike some languages such as French and Spanish, English sometimes does not use any article at all. You don’t need one when making a general statement, or when talking about meals and transportation.
    • I prefer folk music.
    • She hates making noodles.
    • She eats breakfast at home.
    • She traveled to college by train.
  • British writers don’t use an article for some places that Americans would.
    • British: I go to university.
    • American: I go to college.
    • American: I transfered to the university last year.
    • British: I felt so ill that I went to hospital.
    • American: I got so sick I had to go to the hospital.
  • Some rules apply all the time. Some rules apply only in certain situations, and only experience and reading can help you get them all right. And some rules apply only in certain situations in certain cultures: British and American English is sometimes different, as you may have learned by now.

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17 thoughts on “Definitely use “the” or “a””

  1. Note that the choice between using ‘a’ and ‘an’ is not determined by the first letter of the following word, but rather the starting sound of the first syllable of the following word. If the following word starts with a consonant sound, use ‘a’. If the following word starts with a vowel sound, use ‘an’.

    Can you give me a use case?

    It is an honor to meet you.

  2. The “I go to university” usage really threw me for a loop at first. I then substituted the word “college,” which is common usage here in the U.S., and the usage made a lot more sense to me.

    We don’t say “we went to hospital” here, for example. It would be either “we went to a hospital” or “we went to the hospital,” depending on context.

  3. It’s worth noting that *some* countries may use the definitive article, for instance the Black Sea Republic of Crimea is often referenced as ‘the Crimea’, as are the Netherlands, the Gambia. I think it is merely these three which form the exception, however.

  4. What about names of organizations? For example, do we always have to use ‘the’ when we refer to United Nations, or World Vision, or American Red Cross?

  5. Why do Americans say: “He is in the hospital,” while the English say: “He is in hospital”? After all, a hospital is a place, like a university.

  6. There were a couple of mistakes on the articles because I (the editor) published it before Michael (the author) had finished it.

    Sorry guys, we are fixing them 🙂 .

  7. Corrections made, and I will point out to Hesti that you do say the Red Cross and the United Nations, but not the World Vision. On the other hand, you say, “Red Cross volunteers” and “UN peacekeepers.”

  8. I think expressions like “I go to University” works well because of the British accent. If you hear a Londoner say something like that, it does not sound odd at all.

  9. The use of articles depends chiefly on how specific the speaker wants to be.
    The use of the article “THE” is crucial especially if the speaker is pointing to something previously mentioned. also, it’s used to particularise an item in other to avoid ambiguity.

    The use of the article “A”. This article is used especially when you are not specific as to “WHO or WHAT”, this can be shown in the examples hereinafter; “a man came looking for you”, “the man came looking for you”. In the first sentence, “a man” could be any and every man whose identity i do not know, whereas in the second sentence “the man” certainly refers to somebody you already know; perhaps, you are awre he will come to look for you. In summary, the use of this article is constant before consonants.

    The use of the article “AN”. The use of this article can best be shown when distinguished from the article “A”. if “A” is used before consonants, “AN” is used before vowels. “Give me a pen”, “Give me an egg”. However, there is slight exception to this rule; THAT IS, ALL SILENT “Hs” IS PRECEEDED BY THE ARTICLE “AN” as in the example-; “an hour”, “an hero”, but not “an house”or “an hen”.


  10. To jblinkx:

    The “h” in hour is NOT silent. It would be “a hero.”

    I think that Americans use the definate article with places such as hospital because it is a distinct way to differenciate themselves from the British. Afterall, the American Revolution wasn’t fought because the colonists were so fond of the Crown.

    I think this is also the reason that Americans do not use “o” in words such as color, favor, etc.

    It is also interesting that Americans differenciate Herb, the name of a man, from that of a plant by pronouncing the H for the man’s name and not pronouncing the H for the plant (the plant woud be pronounced as “erb”).

    For Americans, it is strange to hear phrases such as, “I went to hospital.” It really feels as though something is missing in the sentence. Likewise, I go to university sounds a bit strange too.

    These types of differences is what makes languages and dialects so interesting though.

  11. You wrote at the end: “…British and American English is sometimes different, as you may have learned by now.”
    Mustn’t we use “are” not “is” here?

  12. i have a question. is the below sentence correct.

    He started his career with the ABCIndia Ltd., Gurgaon, as the “Sales Engineer” and went on to work as the “Asst. Engineer – Marketing (RE)” with the Bajaj Alliance Ltd., Noida.

  13. @Vandana – my inputs from what i learnt from here:

    He started his career with ABCIndia Ltd., Gurgaon, as a “Sales

    Engineer” and went on to work as an “Asst. Engineer – Marketing

    (RE)” with Bajaj Alliance Ltd., Noida.

    and after going thru this site and being a BIG fan of it, i am happy to know that when it comes to ‘knowing impeccable English’ am not the only one who’s learning. we all are. thank you very much :))

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