The articles are the words a, an, and the. They are used to define whether something is specific or unspecific.

More about Articles

Use the to define something as specific:
  • This is the lake.
  • (This is a previously specified lake, i.e., one already known to the readers.)
Use a or an to define something as unspecific:
  • This is a lake.
  • (This is a previously unspecified lake.)
There are two types of articles:
  • The Definite Article (The). The is called the definite article because it defines something as specific.
  • The Indefinite Articles (A, An). A and An are called the indefinite articles because they define something as unspecific.

More Examples of Articles

  • I fell over the chair again.
  • (The chair is specific. It is known to readers.)
  • Please pass me a chair.
  • (This means an unspecific chair, i.e., any chair.)
  • I loved the apple pie after the meal.
  • (A specific apple pie and a specific meal)
  • I love an apple pie after a meal.
  • (An unspecific apple pie and an unspecific meal)
  • I'm not a troublemaker. I'm the troublemaker!
  • (This means "I'm not any old troublemaker. I'm the one you've all heard of.")
Of note, articles are classified as determiners. A determiner sits before a noun to indicate quantity, possession, specificity or definiteness. (There's a section on determiners.)

Why Should I Care about Articles?

The most common mistake involving articles is using an instead of a (or vice versa). This mistake occurs because writers believe an is used before a vowel and a before a consonant. That is not entirely accurate. An is used before a vowel sound and a is used before a consonant sound. The word sound is important because consonants can create vowel sounds, and vowels can create consonant sounds. Therefore, the use of an or a is determined by the sound not the letter.
  • Buy a house in an hour.
  • (House and hour start with the same three letters, but house attracts a, and hour attracts an because house starts with a consonant sound and hour starts with a vowel sound.)
Be especially careful with abbreviations:
  • An MOT. (The letter "em" starts with a vowel sound.)
  • An LRS. (The letter "el" starts with a vowel sound.)
  • A US diplomat. (The letter "yoo" starts with a consonant sound.)
The words historic, historical, historian, horrific and hotel are worthy of special mention because they are often spoken and written with the wrong version of the indefinite article. All of these words start with a consonant sound, as soft as it might be. Therefore, their article is a not an.
  • The attraction of power can be a disease, a horrific disease. [correct] (Irish actor Liam Cunningham)
  • We owe an historic debt to American Indians. They have a unique set of concerns that haven't been addressed. [wrong] (American politician Alan Franken)
  • (An historic is wrong, but a unique is correct.)

    Key Points

    • Use an before a vowel sound and a before a consonant sound. (Note the word sound.)
    • If you're drawn to "an historic" or "an horrific", give your aitches more huh until you're comfortable with using a.
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