How to use English Articles: THE, AN, A (& NO Article)

Lesson Overview

Lesson Summary 

Learn when to use THE definite article in English! This lesson will help you practise using A, AN & THE plus I’ve made you a cheat sheet to help you study when *not* to use an article in English!

In this lesson:
☑️ Pronunciation practice
☑️ Grammar Rules &
☑️ Workbook to help you practise what you learnt!


Video Transcript
Section 1
Hey there! I’m Emma from mmmEnglish! This lesson will help you to use English articles correctly.

In my last lesson, we talked about indefinite articles and I will link to that one at the end of this lesson in case you missed it. But today I’m going to teach you how to use the definite article and when you should use no article at all.

Many of my students make mistakes with articles especially when they speak.  Are you one of them? They’re tricky little buggers!

This lesson is definitely one to watch, and I’ve also created you a worksheet that you can download and help you practise and review everything that we learn in this lesson. Plus my lesson from last week about the indefinite article.

I highly recommend you grab it and you use it to review and to practise what we go through today. It includes all of the tricky rules that we talk about in this lesson with examples but it also has a little quiz and some practice questions to help you put what you learn into practice.

Let’s dive into the lesson.

How articles are used in your native language will have a big impact on the types of mistakes that you make with articles in English. So it’s really important that you try not to directly translate in your head with articles.

You need to learn the way that we use articles in English and that is exactly what we’re here to do today.

The definite article in English is the.

Last week we learned that the indefinite article a or an can be used with singular nouns, but this one, can be used with most types of nouns.

We can use it with singular nouns: The woman is sitting over there.

We can use it with countable nouns: The people in the queue are frustrated.

And uncountable nouns: The information she gave me was false.

Cool huh!

How to pronounce THE

Before we get stuck into the rules, let’s talk about pronunciation, because there are actually two different ways to pronounce this word in English. Both start with the consonant sound.

So the position of your tongue is really important. Make sure it’s coming through.

It’s a voiced sound so you should get the tickle on your tongue, that vibration when you make this sound. So the first way to pronounce it is the with a schwa sound, and the second way to pronounce it is the the. But when do we use each sound?

We use the before nouns that start with a  consonant sound: the car, the unit, the bookshelf.

The u in unit is a consonant sound at the start. It’s pronounced /’ju:nit/. Unit. The unit.

I want you to have a practice with me: the, the car, the unit, the bookshelf.

So now, can you guess when we use the?

Before nouns that begin with a vowel sound. You’re right!

So now that you know, it’s easy to remember this, the relates to a longer vowel sound. The apple, the elephant, the orange, the hour.

Yes, we have the h consonant sound. That is silent. So the first sound that we hear in the word hour is a vowel sound. So we say the hour.

Now I want you to try it with me: the, the apple, the elephant, the orange, the hour.

Now there is something else that happens here in connected speech when native English speakers use the definite article followed by a vowel sound.

I want to know if you can hear it. Listen carefully, there is an extra sound: the apple, the elephant, the orange, the hour.

In order to link words together, speak with a  natural flow and speak quickly, native speakers will add a little /j/ sound between those vowel sounds, and I’ve got a whole lesson about it. You can get to it up here, after this lesson.

So you’ll hear it between those vowels. The apple. yapple. The apple. Right?

It’s very soft, but that little extra sound can potentially mean that you misunderstand or you don’t quite hear a word as you expect it to in English. So it’s worth keeping that in mind.

Okay pronunciation: Tick!

Now let’s talk about when you should use the definite article.

Rule #1

Rule number 1: use the with nouns that have already been mentioned before.

I talked about this a little in my last lesson about the indefinite article. When we mention a noun for the very first time we use a or an, but after we mention it for the first time, we can use the because it’s clear which noun we’re talking about.

  • I saw a woman on the tram this morning.
  • The woman was wearing a red coat and a blue scarf.

So you can see that the noun woman is mentioned twice here, but we use a first because we’re mentioning the woman for the first time.

We can use the so that it’s clear which woman we’re talking about.

Okay, but how about this noun here?

Didn’t I just say that we use a and an to mention something for the first time? I did.

Rule #2

But this brings us to rule number 2. We use the to be specific.

When I say, the tram, I’m talking about a specific tram. I’m talking about the 8am tram that I take to work every morning. I’m talking about the tram that I was on. I’m not talking about any random tram.

When I say, the boss is giving me a hard time, I’m talking about a specific boss. My boss. The boss that I work for.

So when I say, the boss is giving me a hard time, I’m assuming that you, the listener or the reader, you know which boss I’m talking about.

Either because it’s obvious or because it wouldn’t make any sense otherwise. It wouldn’t make much sense if I was
talking about your boss or just any boss in another company. Why would they be giving me a hard time? You can assume that I’m going to be talking about the boss that I work for. My boss.

Let’s look at a few more examples.

We can say a museum, any museum compared to the British Museum. A specific museum.

We can say a hotel and mean any hotel, compared to the Ritz Hotel. Which is a specific hotel.

We can apply the same logic to people too. A pilot, means any pilot, compared to the specific pilot who is flying the plane that I’m talking about.

We can say an engineer, who’s working on the project. Any engineer. He’s one of many. There are many engineers, compared to the lead engineer. There’s only one of them. The lead engineer is specific.

You get the idea, right?

We can also use the to talk about specific times of day. The morning, during the afternoon and the evening.

But you need to watch out because for whatever reason in English we say at night. We don’t say at the night. Morning, evening, night, this can kind of get a little tricky with articles, with prepositions.

There are often some pretty crazy rules in English around how to use these words accurately.

I did want to give a little shout out to my prepositions course. It is a complete package of amazing lessons about English prepositions. Lots of practice, lots of imitation practice included as well so that you learn the rules but also how to use them in spoken English naturally and sound like a native speaker.

The link to check out the course and to try one of the modules for free head down to the description and you’ll see it right there.

Rule #3

Rule number 3: we use the with unique nouns or titles.

When there’s only one of something, the sun, the moon, the President, the Queen. Of course, there is more than one president in the world. There’s also more than one queen, but there is only one President of the United States. There is only one Queen of England.

So when we’re using a noun that can be generic or unique. we need to look for the context of how it’s being used.

Actually, names or titles that are formed with this same pattern: the something of something, they all refer to something that is specific or unique.

The CEO of my company. The Prime Minister of India. The capital of Australia. All of these nouns are unique. There’s only one capital city in my country. There’s only one Prime Minister in India.

So using the definite article in this situation helps us to define the noun that we’re talking about.

Alright, this next one is one that I hear my students messing up quite a bit so I’m gonna walk you through it slowly.

Rule #4

Rule number 4 is use the with superlative adjectives.

When we use a superlative adjective to describe a noun, that noun instantly becomes unique. Only one thing can be the biggest, or the tallest, or the best and I want to give you an example taking a look at our planet Earth within the solar system.

Earth is big. It’s bigger than Venus, but both Neptune and Uranus are bigger than Earth. Which planet is the biggest? Jupiter is the biggest planet in the solar system. Only one planet can be the biggest, or the smallest, or the nicest, or the furthest.

When we compare nouns in this way, remember that by using the superlative adjective, your noun instantly becomes unique. There is only one and therefore that means you need to use the.

Okay this is where things get a little dicey. Sometimes, the trickiest part about using articles is knowing when not to use one.

This part of the lesson is definitely the hardest part to teach because there are some exceptions that we need to talk about. But here goes.

Rule #5

Rule number 5: don’t use an article, any article, in general statements.

Let’s have a look at some general statements and I’ll show you just what I mean.

  • Good friends always listen.
  • Sloths are lazy animals.
  • Fruit is sweet.

So these are all general statements. I’m talking generally about the characteristics of good friends, sloths and fruit.

Did you notice that all of these nouns are either plural or they’re uncountable and we do this to talk generally about something?

But we can still use an article to make general statements.

We can say a good friend always listens. Notice that friend is now no longer plural but what I mean here is that every
individual good friend listens.

That’s what any one good friend does.

So this statement is still general, it’s just two different ways of saying the same thing.

On the other hand, if I change this sentence to: the fruit is sweet, well then I’m talking about some specific fruit.

Maybe it’s the fruit on the table, or the fruit in the bowl, or the fruit that I bought from the market and fruit in this context refers to a plural uncountable noun. It refers to all of the fruit in the bowl. The apple, the banana, the strawberries, the pineapple, they are all sweet.

So by adding the article, the meaning changes from being general to being specific.

  • Fruit in general is sweet in summer.
  • The fruit that we ate yesterday was very sweet.

Rule #6

Don’t use an article with these proper nouns. Proper nouns are nouns that name a specific place or person or organisation. In English, they are always written with a capital letter, because they’re very important.

In general, we don’t use articles with proper nouns… uh well if only it was that simple. This one is probably the trickiest rule in this lesson. So I want you to focus.

I want you to come back here. Focus on what I’m talking about, and because this section is so tricky, I’ve also made you a little cheat sheet with different types of nouns that don’t use articles, particularly some of the exceptions and I have linked to that down in the description below.

Don’t use the with names of people.

  • I saw the Frances the other day.

No. However, you can use the when you’re talking about a group of people who have the same name like a family.

Then we would use the and the plural form of that family name.

  • I bumped into the Smiths the other day.

So when I say the Smiths, I mean more than one member of the Smith family. They were all together.

We also use the to refer to a group of people from the same country, like:

  • The Japanese are punctual.
  • The Italians are passionate.

Don’t use the with place names India, Turkey and Malaysia are all part of Asia. We don’t say the India or the Asia. This is true for most countries and continents, but there are a few important exceptions.

So I recommend that you learn the rule but then you learn the exceptions because there are just a few.

Firstly, countries that use kingdom, republic or union in their name use the. The United Kingdom, The Republic of Congo, The European Union.

Country names that are plural also use the. The Netherlands, The United States of America, and some countries that are made up of multiple islands like: the Philippines or the West Indies. They all use the. Don’t use an article with streets or parks or lakes when you’re specifically naming them.

  • We’re staying at Federation Square on Flinders Street.
  • Albert Park is just a few minutes away.

This rule can sometimes trip people up because when we reference a public place without using its name, we can use the. You know, the park across the road. What a view!

  • The lake looks stunning at sunset.

But when we name that park or that lake we don’t use the article.

  • Victoria Park is across the road.
  • Lake Como looks lovely at sunset.

Ooh last tip! We have just learned not to use the with country names towns and cities but there is a different rule for geographical nouns.

Rule #7

Rule number 7 is: use the definite article with these geographical nouns.

With mountain ranges, like the Himalayas or the Alps these names refer to a group of mountains right however single mountains like Mount Everest or Mount Fuji are used without an article. A single mountain, no article. Groups of mountains, use the.

Let’s take a look at some other examples of geographical nouns. Canals, rivers, seas, oceans, valleys and deserts.

These nouns are good ones to learn together in chunks because the rules are a little confusing, trying to understand them
could send you a little crazy.

But learning the noun together with the article that it’s used with is going to help.

It’s going to stop you from thinking and asking the question and just more naturally know and remember, oh that’s right,
it’s not Himalayas, it’s The Himalayas.

Here’s one final mistake that I often hear my students making with the definite article.

He hurt the foot yesterday.

Do you sometimes make this mistake too?

In English, we use possessive determiners. In this context we use my, your, his, hers, ours, theirs with body parts.

  • He hurt his foot yesterday. Not he hurt the foot.
  • She washes her hands often. Not she washes the hands.
  • I bumped my head. Not I bumped the head.

Well done you made it all the way through to the end of the lesson. You should be feeling like an article pro now!

There are two little things. Make sure you grab that workbook that I’ve created for you. It’s got all of these tricky rules.

It’s a little bit like a cheat sheet that helps you to know when to use an article, when not to use an article, plus there’s some practice activities and a little quiz to help you lock all of the knowledge everything that you learned into your memory so that you can draw on it and use it when you need to.

If you want to put your new skills to the test, I’ve got a little homework task for you.

I want you to pause the video, tell me about your hometown down in the comments. Describe it with some geographical nouns. Tell me something that is generally true about the people who live there and something that is specific about your upbringing or your family and if while you’re writing you need to go back and review one of the rules that we went through, use the chapters in this video to help you go back, skip back to that section and find the answer that you need.

That is exactly why I put those chapters there, so it’s easy for you to come back to and use my lessons to help all the time.

If you’ve got a question about this lesson or you just want to say hello drop me a comment down below this video and thank you so much for watching.

Check out these lessons next. See you in there!

Links mentioned in the video

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