Using A and The in Sentences: Grammar Guide –
Even for people who are quite fluent in English, using A and The can still be confusing. This guide will help you use them correctly!
A/An and The have the grammar name ‘articles.’ These three words belong to a larger grammar family called noun markers; because the word that follows them is always a noun, these words ‘mark’ the noun to make it more specific. Other members of the noun-marker family include some, many, my, your, this and these. Generally, a noun will only have one noun marker at a time. Some nouns don’t need any marker at all.
With this in mind, let’s talk about using A, An and The in sentences. To help us do this, we first need to talk about the different types of nouns that these words mark:
Count Nouns, Noncount Nouns, and Nouns That Go Both Ways
Nouns are words that describe people, places, and things:
- My sister is a teacher. (people)
- She lives downtown near the park. (places)
- She loves pasta and jazz music. (things)
While this seems simple so far, it can often be tricky because there are so many kinds of nouns in the world, including real things you can see and touch, very big things, very small things, and things you can only imagine or feel. This is where count and noncount nouns come in…
What is a Count Noun?
Count Nouns are people, places, and things that can be numbered and added together (in English, that is–what is a count noun for English speakers may not be in other languages). They have both a single form for one thing, and a plural form for more than one. Examples of Count Nouns include:
- Child: One child, Two children, etc.
- Cafe: One cafe, Two cafes, etc.
- Chair: One chair, Two chairs, etc.
Note that for some count nouns, the single and plural form looks the same:
- One sheep, Two sheep, etc.
- One fish, Two fish, etc.
Generally speaking, count nouns have a clear, specific shape (chairs have legs and a surface for sitting) and can be separated easily from other things. They don’t have very small parts and they don’t represent a large group of things.
What is a Noncount Noun?
Noncount Nouns are people, places, and things that only have one form and are never plural. This may be for a variety of reasons:
1. Items with a variety of shapes, sizes, and lengths:
bread, candy, chocolate, cloth, fish, ice cream, pasta, yarn
2. Liquids and semi-liquids:
coffee, cream, milk, oil, rain, shampoo, tea, water, yogurt
3. Things with many small parts:
hair, rice, sand, salt, snow, sugar
4. Collective substances:
air, cement, dirt, flour, paper, plastic, soap, steel, wood
5. Abstract concepts that cannot be seen or touched:
advice, anger, beauty, happiness, information, love, space, truth
6. Names for a collection of things that have many different shapes and sizes:
clothing, equipment, fruit, jewelry, luggage, lumber, machinery, mail, money
If we want to count nouns that are non-count, we have to put another noun in front that is countable:
- A piece of fruit
- Two kilos of sugar
- Three reams of paper
Nouns That Go Both Ways
Things are never simple with English! Some nouns can be either count nouns or noncount nouns, depending on their meaning. For example:
- a: We need to buy paper. (noncount: collective substance)
- b: Someone left a paper on the table. (count: individual piece of paper)
- a: My new apartment has a lot of space. (noncount: abstract concept)
- b: It’s nice to have a quiet space to sit and relax. (count: a specific area)
Nouns with both count and noncount meanings can be quite confusing! Here are a few common ones:
art/arts, cheese/cheeses, coffee/coffees, danger/dangers, failure/failures, faith/faiths, fish/fish, food/foods, fruit/fruits, gas/gasses, height/heights, joy/joys, meat/meats, noise/noises, paper/papers, pizza/pizzas, room/rooms, space/spaces, youth/youths
Is that coffee or a coffee? It’s both!
Okay, with all this said, now we can give some basic rules for A/An and The. Here we go:
Rule 1: Use A/An with single count nouns that are unknown or talked about for the first time.
If a single count noun refers to something unknown, it requires “A” or “An” unless it already has another noun marker (words like ‘this,’ ‘my,’ or ‘one’).
- Would you like a piece of fruit? (single count noun that is talked about for the first time)
- Would you like this piece of fruit? (‘this’ is a noun marker)
Nouns that start with a consonant use A:
- I plan to donate a box of books.
- My neighbor has a dog that barks all the time.
Nouns that start with a vowel or silent consonant use An:
- We work in an office.
- It is an honor to meet you.
Rule 2: Do not use A/An with noncount nouns.
While noncount nouns can use the, they do not use a/an. For example:
- Incorrect: A love is one of the greatest feelings in the world.
- Correct: Love is one of the greatest feelings in the world.
However, this ‘simple’ rule is made more difficult when nouns have both count and noncount meanings:
- Correct: Would you like coffee? (meaning the liquid drink)
- Correct: Would you like a coffee? (meaning a cup of coffee)
Rule 3: Do not use A/An with plural nouns.
Finally, a rule that seems somewhat clear! If the noun is in plural form, it doesn’t take a/an:
- Incorrect: We plan to buy a new dishes.
- Correct: We plan to buy new dishes. or We plan to buy a new set of dishes.
Rule 4: Use The with most nouns that are already known to people:
This rule applies to both count and noncount nouns equally. A noun can be known for several reasons:
A. A noun can be known because it has already been discussed:
- I bought a pizza for dinner. (individual item, discussed for the first time.) The pizza is keeping warm in the oven. (after being discussed, the noun is now known.)
B. A phrase or a clause following the noun limits its meaning:
- The English spoken in America is quite different from the English spoken in Scotland.
C. A superlative like best or most interesting makes the noun’s meaning specific:
- I don’t want a good pair of running shoes (general unknown count noun); I want the best pair I can find.
D. The noun is a daily-life place or thing that is familiar to most people:
- I need to go to the store.
- She went to visit her sister in the hospital.
- I have to pay the electricity bill.
- My coworker has the flu.
E. The noun describes something unique:
- You should never look directly at the sun.
- She hopes to be the next president.
Complete these sentences with A/An, The or nothing:
a. At the grocery store, could you buy ______ loaf of bread, _______ cheese, _________ olive oil, _______ box of pasta, and ________ rice?
b. For dinner tonight, we’re having _______ pizza and ________ salad. I bought _________ pizza at _________ grocery store this afternoon.
c. My favorite dessert is _______ ice cream with _______ piece of apple pie.
d. Please don’t fill _______ bathtub so full. You are using up all _______ hot water.
e. I heard ______ interesting piece of news today. ______ town council voted to build _______ new park in _________ place where _________ old library used to be.
f. I thought I had ______ mild cold, but now I’m afraid I have _______ flu. I need to go to ______ pharmacy and buy ________ flu medicine.
g. _______ life is like ______ box of ______ chocolate.
Practice Exercise Answer Key
a. At the grocery store, could you buy a loaf of bread, cheese, olive oil, a box of pasta, and rice?
b. For dinner tonight, we’re having pizza and salad. I bought the pizza at the grocery store this afternoon.
c. My favorite dessert is ice cream with a piece of apple pie.
d. Please don’t fill the bathtub so full. You are using up all the hot water.
e. I heard an interesting piece of news today. The town council voted to build a new park in the place where the old library used to be.
f. I thought I had a mild cold, but now I’m afraid I have the flu. I need to go to the (or a) pharmacy and buy flu medicine.
g. Life is like a box of chocolate.
Thanks for spending time with this Grammar Guide for Using A and The in Sentences.
For more about using English articles, be sure to see my favorite ESOL grammar resource: Grammar in Use (American English) by Raymond Murphy (available on Amazon)
You might also enjoy Lynn Miclea’s Grammar Tips and Tools (available on Amazon)
Finally, you can check out some of my other posts
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