The Art of Articles

An article is a word which is always used before a noun. In English, there are only three articles – a, an, and the. When you see an article, a noun will follow; however, the article may be followed by an adjective – such as “the tired dog,” or “the pretty girl.” The article-adjective-noun may also include an adverb, such as “the very tired dog,” or “the extremely pretty girl.”

Technically, an article is considered an adjective, as the article modifies the noun just as an adjective does. Articles are also referred to as “determiners” as they determine whether something is specific or nonspecific. Articles in English are either definite (specific), or indefinite (nonspecific).

THE = Definite Article

The is a definite article, which refers to something specific. For example, “Let’s go to the movie,” refers to a specific movie. If the sentence stated, “Let’s go to a movie,” it could mean any movie, or a nonspecific movie.

Other examples of definite articles:

I want to go to the party. (a specific party, not just any party)
Can a have the cookie? (a particular cookie, not just any cookie)
I want the coat on sale. (a particular sale coat)

Definite articles are also used before names of educational departments, buildings or institutions, such as

I want to go to the University of Nebraska.
He works in the Department of Gerontology.

Definite articles also precede bodies of water and mountain ranges:

I have heard the Great Lakes are beautiful.
Have you been to the Rocky Mountains?
I want to ski the Swiss Alps.

Other notes on definite articles

If you are referring to a country that is only one word, you would not use an article:

I am from Africa. (not the Africa)
I have visited France. (not the France)

You would use an article before the United States, but not America.

You would not use “the” for planets:

Incorrect: The Pluto is the smallest planet.
Correct: Pluto is the smallest planet.

Finally, omit “the” before cities, towns, states, continents, names of streets, languages, nationalities, sports (football), and academic subjects.

But DO use “the” before rivers, oceans, seas, specific points on the globe (the South Pole), geographical areas, deserts and forests.

A and An = Indefinite Articles

A or An are indefinite articles, which refers to a non-specific noun. For example, “Can I get a dog?” refers to any dog in general. In contrast, “Can I get the dog,” is referring to one specific dog.

The beginning letter and sound of a word will determine whether you’ll use A or An.
A singular noun beginning with a vowel will use “an”: an orange; an airplane; an opera. Also, an will precede a noun with a silent “h” such as hour. However, if the “h” is not silent, you would use the article a, such as a horse or a hobby.

A singular noun beginning with a consonant will use “a”; a car; a boy; a tornado. “A” is also used with a singular noun that has a consonant sound, such as university, which begins with a “y” sound, a consonant.

Other examples of indefinite articles:

I’d like to go to a university. (any university will do)
Can I have an apple? (any apple)
I want to see an octopus. (doesn’t matter which one)

We do not use an indefinite article with plural nouns and noncount nouns:

She was wearing red shoes. (shoes is a plural noun)
She has long brunette hair. (hair is a noncount noun)
I want to wear denim jeans to work Friday. (jeans is plural)
I have so much homework to do! (homework is noncount)


Now you try!

Fill in the blanks to the following sentences.

  1. There are ____ observers who believe that collecting is America’s fastest-growing hobby.
  2. According to Miller’s Fashion Doll, ­­­­­_____ popular magazine for doll collectors, dolls are second only to stamps as ­­­_____ most popular collectible in America, and Barbie is by far _____ most popular collector doll.
  3. While _____ people do make money selling the dolls, most simply have _____ large collection of Barbies and _____ interest in keeping her legacy alive.
(exercises from Bedford St. Martin Exercise Central)

For English Language Learners, visit these resources to learn about articles and for practice:





ESL Spotlight: Verb Combinations


English sentences sometimes require a combination of a helping verb with a main verb. A helping verb, also known as an auxiliary verb, helps out the main verb, giving more detail in how time is portrayed. Helping verbs always appear before the main verb in a sentence.

According to The Brief English Handbook, English has 23 helping verbs; 9 work only as helping verbs, and the remainder are forms of do, have, and be.

  • do, does, did
  • have, has, had,
  • be, is, was, were, are, am, been, being

In many cases, a verb will not be complete without a helping verb.

  • The doctor will arrive soon.
  • The contract was submitted late.
  • Steve has been studying all night.

In the examples above, the sentences required a helping verb to complete the verb. Without the helping verb, they would not make sense.


Modals are a type of helping verb that express probability, necessity, or ability. Below is a list of modal verbs:

  • Can, could, may, might, will, would, must, shall, should, ought to

  • He does not know the answer.
  • I should bring a dessert.
  • Dave could come early if needed.

In the examples below, have, has, and had are used with past participles (driven, contributed, slept are all past tense) to form the perfect tense:

  • I have driven all night to get here.
    Vicky has contributed more than anyone.
    Kate had slept later than usual.

In the following examples, is, was, were, are, and am are used with present participles to form the progressive tense:

  • John was working on the furnace.
    Jason is swimming in the lake.
    The students are studying for the finals.

Passive Voice

The passive voice is created by combining a helping verb, is, was, were, are, am, with a past participle. This means that the recipient of the verb or action becomes the subject of a sentence. This is not grammatically incorrect, but a stylistic choice, though your instructor may ask that you avoid passive construction when you can.

  • The boy was thrown from the horse.
    The trees were scorched by the wildfires.
    The kids were bitten by the puppies.

Verb combinations are often confusing for English language learners. English also has irregular verbs that complicate our understanding, but with practice, you will begin to master verb constructions. Visit the links below for more information and exercises.

  1. A number of recent crashes ____ (raise) questions about the risks of letting new pilots fly at night.
    A. had raised                        B. have raised
  2. The board ____ (state) that approximately eighty people die each year in crashes involving privately flown planes.
    A. has stated                         B. had stated
  3. Some experts ____ (argue) that the number of these types of crashes have decreased over the last twenty years.
    A. have argued                     B. had argued


[Examples 1-3 from Bedford St. Martin’s Exercise Central.]