Many languages do not use articles ("a," "an," and "the"), or if they do exist, the way they are used may be different than in English. Multilingual writers often find article usage to be one of the most difficult concepts to learn. Although there are some rules about article usage to help, there are also quite a few exceptions. Therefore, learning to use articles accurately takes a long time. To master article usage, it is necessary to do a great deal of reading, notice how articles are used in published texts, and take notes that can apply back to your own writing.
To get started, please read this blog post on The Argument for Articles.
Please see this webpage for more about countable and uncountable nouns.
"A" and "an" are used with singular countable nouns when the noun is nonspecific or generic.
"A" is used when the noun that follows begins with a consonant sound.
"An" is used when the noun that follows begins with a vowel sound.
Sometimes "a" or "an" can be used for first mention (the first time the noun is mentioned). Then, in subsequent sentences, the article "the" is used instead.
"The" is used with both singular and plural nouns and with both countable and uncountable nouns when the noun is specific.
Here are some more specific rules:
"The" is used in the following categories of proper nouns:
In general, use "the" with plural proper nouns.
"The" is often used with proper nouns that include an “of” phrase.
Use "the" when the noun being referred to is unique because of our understanding of the world.
Use "the" when a noun can be made specific from a previous mention in the text. This is also known as second or subsequent mention.
"The" is used with superlative adjectives, which are necessarily unique (the first, the second, the biggest, the smallest, the next, the only, etc.).
Biber et al. (1999) found that "the" is about twice as common as "a" or "an" in academic writing. This may be because writers at this level often focus on overall ideas and categories (generic reference, usually no article) and on specific references (definite reference, the article "the").
Writers sometimes struggle with the choice to include an article or to leave it out altogether. Keep in mind that if the noun is singular, countable, and nonspecific or generic (e.g., book, author), the articles "a" and "an" may be used. However, if the noun is countable and plural (e.g.., "research studies") or uncountable (e.g., "information") and it is being used in a nonspecific or generic way, no article is used.
Here are some more specifics:
Sometimes article usage in English does not follow a specific rule. These expressions must be memorized instead.
Here are some examples of phrases where article usage is not predictable:
There are also numerous idiomatic expressions in English that contain nouns. Some of these also contain articles while others do not.
Here are just a few examples: