Thursday, August 11, 2016

Should I use an indefinite article (a/an) or a definite article (the)?


What is an article?
·       Basically, an article is an adjective. Like adjectives, articles modify nouns.

English has two articles: the and a/an.
·       the = definite article used to refer to specific or particular nouns
·       a/an = indefinite article used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns; "A/an" is used to refer to a non-specific or non-particular member of the group
o   For example, if I say, "Let's read the book," I mean a specific book. If I say, "Let's read a book," I mean any book (a non-particular book) rather than a specific book.

Omission of Articles

Not all nouns need articles. Some common types of nouns that don't take an article are:
  • Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian (unless you are referring to the population of the nation in general: "The Spanish are known for their warm hospitality.")
  • Names of academic subjects: mathematics, biology, history, computer science

· Find and circle all of the articles in your paper.
· Can you tell which nouns require definite and indefinite articles, and which require no article at all?
Homework – Find and fix any mistakes in your use of articles.

In addition to MS Word spell check, you might try Vince's "Google that stuff" (GTS) method.
1.     Put your article phrase in quotation marks and search Google (.com English version, not
·       Example: "the veracity of a theory" (I could not find any instances of "a veracity of a theory." Therefore, this phrase always uses the definitive article ("the")
2.     If professionally edited sites (not personal blogs) use the phrase as you have written it, then your articles are probably correct.
3.     On the other hand, if you only find a few examples, or none at all, then you should probably use a different article, or none at all.

Try Vince's GTS method with the following phrases:
Can you find any indefinite article phrases for the following? (I could not.)
·       "The Data Encryption Standard"
·       "the Earth's crust"
·       "the opposite polarity"
·       "the power of reasoning"
·       "the Secure Sockets Layer"
·       "the theory of relativity"

I found instances of both definite and indefinite articles for the following phrases:
·       "a carbon footprint" and "the carbon footprint" (e.g. of The carbon footprint an iPhone)
·       "a symbiotic relationship” and. "the symbiotic relationship" (e.g. The symbiotic relationship between humans and domesticated animals)
·       "an outlier from the data" and "the outlier from the data" (e.g. How does removing the outlier from the data affect the mean and the median?)

Vince's final observation: I believe the process of learning English articles is somewhat similar to the process of learning Japanese counter words (josūshi 助数詞), which are used along with numbers to count things, actions, and events. Someone learning Japanese simply needs to memorize the proper use of these unique grammatical structures. Perhaps English articles are similar in this regard. Therefore, if you read (and write) English every day, you will eventually develop instincts to differentiate definite and indefinite articles.

Even writers who grew up in English-speaking countries struggle with articles. 

Here are some tips from the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), which is a fantastic resource. 

Using Articles

Summary: This handout discusses the differences between indefinite articles (a/an) and definite articles (the). 
  • Contributors: Paul Lynch, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
  • Last Edited: 2011-03-03 10:04:28

What is an article? Basically, an article is an adjective. Like adjectives, articles modify nouns.

English has two articles: the and a/an. The is used to refer to specific or particular nouns; a/an is used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. We call the the definite article and a/an the indefinite article.
  • the = definite article
  • a/an = indefinite article

For example, if I say, "Let's read the book," I mean a specific book. If I say, "Let's read a book," I mean any book rather than a specific book.

Here's another way to explain it: The is used to refer to a specific or particular member of a group. For example, "I just saw the most popular movie of the year." There are many movies, but only one particular movie is the most popular. Therefore, we use the.

"A/an" is used to refer to a non-specific or non-particular member of the group. 
For example, "I would like to go see a movie." Here, we're not talking about a specific movie. We're talking about any movie. There are many movies, and I want to see any movie. I don't have a specific one in mind.
Let's look at each kind of article a little more closely.


Indefinite Articles: a and an

"A" and "an" signal that the noun modified is indefinite, referring to any member of a group. For example:
  • "My daughter really wants a dog for Christmas." This refers to any dog. We don't know which dog because we haven't found the dog yet.
  • "Somebody call a policeman!" This refers to any policeman. We don't need a specific policeman; we need any policeman who is available.
  • "When I was at the zoo, I saw an elephant!" Here, we're talking about a single, non-specific thing, in this case an elephant. There are probably several elephants at the zoo, but there's only one we're talking about here.


Remember, using a or an depends on the sound that begins the next word. So...

  • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant: a boy; a car; a bike; a zoo; a dog
  • an + singular noun beginning with a vowel: an elephant; an egg; an apple; an idiot; an orphan
  • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant sound: a user (sounds like 'yoo-zer,' i.e. begins with a consonant 'y' sound, so 'a' is used); a university; a unicycle
  • an + nouns starting with silent "h": an hour
  • a + nouns starting with a pronounced "h": a horse
    • In some cases where "h" is pronounced, such as "historical," you can use an. However, a is more commonly used and preferred.
      A historical event is worth recording.

Remember that these rules also apply when you use acronyms:

  • Introductory Composition at Purdue (ICaP) handles first-year writing at the University. Therefore, an ICaP memo generally discusses issues concerning English 106 instructors.

Another case where this rule applies is when acronyms start with consonant letters but have vowel sounds:

  • An MSDS (material safety data sheet) was used to record the data. An SPCC plan (Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasures plan) will help us prepare for the worst.

If the noun is modified by an adjective, the choice between a and an depends on the initial sound of the adjective that immediately follows the article:
  • a broken egg
  • an unusual problem
  • a European country (sounds like 'yer-o-pi-an,' i.e. begins with consonant 'y' sound)
Remember, too, that in English, the indefinite articles are used to indicate membership in a group:
  • I am a teacher. (I am a member of a large group known as teachers.)
  • Brian is an Irishman. (Brian is a member of the people known as Irish.)
  • Seiko is a practicing Buddhist. (Seiko is a member of the group of people known as Buddhists.)

Definite Article: the

The definite article is used before singular and plural nouns when the noun is specific or particular. The signals that the noun is definite, that it refers to a particular member of a group. 

For example:
  • "The dog that bit me ran away." Here, we're talking about a specific dog, the dog that bit me.
  • "I was happy to see the policeman who saved my cat!" Here, we're talking about a particular policeman. Even if we don't know the policeman's name, it's still a particular policeman because it is the one who saved the cat.
  • "I saw the elephant at the zoo." Here, we're talking about a specific noun. Probably there is only one elephant at the zoo.

Count and Noncount Nouns

The can be used with noncount nouns, or the article can be omitted entirely.
  • "I love to sail over the water" (some specific body of water) or "I love to sail over water" (any water).
  • "He spilled the milk all over the floor" (some specific milk, perhaps the milk you bought earlier that day) or "He spilled milk all over the floor" (any milk).

"A/an" can be used only with count nouns.
  • "I need a bottle of water."
  • "I need a new glass of milk."

Most of the time, you can't say, "She wants a water," unless you're implying, say, a bottle of water.

Geographical use of the

There are some specific rules for using the with geographical nouns.
Do not use the before:
  • names of most countries/territories: Italy, Mexico, Bolivia; however, thethe Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the United States Netherlands,
  • names of cities, towns, or states: Seoul, Manitoba, Miami
  • names of streets: Washington Blvd., Main St.
  • names of lakes and bays: Lake Titicaca, Lake Erie except with a group of lakes like the Great Lakes
  • names of mountains: Mount Everest, Mount Fuji except with ranges of mountains like the Andes or the Rockies or unusual names like the Matterhorn
  • names of continents (Asia, Europe)
  • names of islands (Easter Island, Maui, Key West) except with island chains like the Aleutians, the Hebrides, or the Canary Islands

Do use the before:
  • names of rivers, oceans and seas: the Nile, the Pacific
  • points on the globe: the Equator, the North Pole
  • geographical areas: the Middle East, the West
  • deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas: the Sahara, the Persian Gulf, the Black Forest, the Iberian Peninsula 

Omission of Articles

Some common types of nouns that don't take an article are:
  • Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian (unless you are referring to the population of the nation: "The Spanish are known for their warm hospitality.")
  • Names of sports: volleyball, hockey, baseball
  • Names of academic subjects: mathematics, biology, history, computer science



1.    a bell curve
2.    a blatant error
3.    a bold conjecture
4.    a brilliant metamorphosis
5.    a carbon footprint
6.    a cell membrane
7.    a confirmatory test
8.    a controlled trial
9.    a cost-benefit analysis
10.    a cryptogram
11.    a falsifiable hypothesis
12.    a falsification of the facts
13.    a favorable variation
14.    a fear of contagion
15.    a gene mutation
16.    a generalized infection
17.    a genotype
18.    a human embryo
19.    a life science ombudsman
20.    a life-giving elixir
21.    a light receptor
22.    a major category
23.    a major premise
24.    a mechanical contrivance
25.    a memory module
26.    a negative connotation
27.    a negative externality
28.    a neurodegenerative disorder
29.    a neurophysiological change
30.    a paradoxical truth
31.    a particle trajectory
32.    a perceptible distinction
33.    a perennial problem
34.    a performance metric
35.    a phenotype
36.    a physical examination
37.    a physiotherapist
38.    a plurality of users
39.    a practitioner of naturopathy
40.    a precipitous decline
41.    a prime locus
42.    a prominent microbiologist
43.    a psychoactive drug
44.    a refined experiment
45.    a regression into infancy
46.    a replication of an experiment
47.    a reserve of oil
48.    a reciprocal relationship
49.    a retrovirus
50.    a scientific milestone
51.    a scientific article
52.    a self-regulating system
53.    a sentient being
54.    a separate cell
55.    a separate entity
56.    a skin irritation study
57.    a somatic cell
58.    a state of disequilibrium
59.    a state of flux
60.    a supernormal range of vision
61.    a symbiotic relationship
62.    a systematizer of data
63.    a theoretical construct
64.    a theoretical discipline
65.    a therapeutic process
66.    a transfer protocol
67.    a transitional fossil
68.    a transmutation from A to B
69.    a transposition cipher
70.    a traumatic procedure
71.    a vital clue
72.    a water-related epidemic
73.    a wiring fault
74.    a world-class geophysicist
75.    a zero-emission vehicle



1.    an aberration
2.    an able exponent of science
3.    an ad hoc explanation
4.    an adaptive advantage
5.    an add-on device
6.    an adult cell
7.    an adverse effect
8.    an allele
9.    an allergen
10.    an allopathic doctor
11.    an analgesic
12.    an anesthetic
13.    an aquatic arthropod
14.    an area of contention
15.    an astrophysicist
16.    an elective subject
17.    an electron
18.    an elementary particle
19.    an embryonic stem cell
20.    an eminent publicist
21.    an empathy with animals
22.    an endemic disease
23.    an ethical transgression
24.    an imaging experiment
25.    an impending disaster
26.    an impossible dilemma
27.    an indigenous species
28.    an influential preceptor
29.    an ingenious experiment
30.    an inner cell mass
31.    an insidious disease
32.    an insuperable obstacle
33.    an interceptor
34.    an intermediate stage
35.    an optimally-controlled motor
36.    an oral vaccine
37.    an organ transplant
38.    an ornithologist
39.    an outlier from the data
40.    an underlying reason


1.    the ability to reproduce
2.    the acuity of vision
3.    the age of puberty
4.    the Arctic rim of Alaska
5.    the causal nexus
6.    the climate jigsaw
7.    the cranium of a cat
8.    the Data Encryption Standard
9.    the Earth's crust
10.    the eaves of a house
11.    the efficacy of a treatment
12.    the equivalent of a command
13.    the evidence of plagiarism
14.    the genetics behind cancer
15.    the history of cryptography
16.    the imperative of justice
17.    the impoverishment of Africa
18.    the incidence of catastrophes
19.    the integrity of science
20.    the lexical cohesion
21.    the lexicon of medicine
22.    the lore of herbal medicine
23.    the minutiae
24.    the movement of a photon
25.    the Neolithic era
26.    the neuroscience of dementia
27.    the offspring of a hybrid
28.    the only method conceivable
29.    the opposite polarity
30.    the power of reasoning
31.    the Secure Sockets Layer
32.    the theory of relativity
33.    the transcription of a gene
34.    the uniformity of nature
35.    the veracity of a theory

    - Updated by Vince on Sat 20 Aug 2016

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