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.