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When should I use 'a' and 'an'?

Use 'A' or 'AN' with singular countable nouns whose specific identity is not known to the reader.

The identity may be unknown because it is being mentioned for the first time, or because it is unknown even to the writer. A usually means "one among many" but can also mean "any one."

'A' is used before a word beginning with a consonant sound: a banana, a hand, a show.
'AN' is used before a word beginning with a vowel sound: an eagle, an honor, an ox.

Notice that it is the vowel sound that matters: a hand, an honor.

When should I use 'the'?

Use 'the' with most nouns whose specific identity is know to the reader.

Usually the noun will be clear to the reader for one of the following reasons:

(1) the noun has been previously mentioned
(2) A phrase or clause following the noun restricts its identity
(3) A superlative such as best makes the noun's identity specific
(4) The noun describes a unique person, place, or thing
(5) The context or situation makes the noun's identity clear


We found a nice apartment by the lake. The apartment has two bedrooms and a fireplace. The fireplace will be nice this winter.
(The identity of the apartment and fireplace are known after they are mentioned the first time.)

speeding car nearly hit me. Three police cars followed it. Later, I found out that the car had been stolen, and the driver was arrested.
(The identity of the car is known after it is mentioned once. The identity of the driver is clear because he or she is specifically the driver of the stolen car.)

Lauren dated a tall boy, but Nicole dated the tallest boy in the school.

(Lauren's boyfriend was one of many tall boys, so his identity isn't specific. However, we know exactly who Nicole's boyfriend is: the tallest boy.)

Do not look directly at the sun.

(There is only one sun in our solar system. so its identity is clear.)

Remember! Do not use 'a' or 'an' with plural or uncountable nouns.


How can I get better? 

Typically, articles are one of the most difficult grammatical concepts for students who are learning English. The rules always have exceptions, and some uses of articles are nearly impossible for native English speakers to explain. The best ways to learn articles are to PRACTICE WRITING and to READ.




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