Articles (a/an/the) are used to describe nouns (so they are placed right before a noun).
Examples: the boat, a mother, the bees, an antelope, the computer, an hour
Some of the most frequent corrections I make during editing involve articles and their usage. But, I promise that article usage is really easy once to understand once you get a little bit of practice. Spanish also has indefinite and definite articles, and their usage follows a similar pattern to English. However, I think where many English as a second language (ESL) learners get unnecessarily confused is with the, which may be used in slightly different ways in English.
But first things, first.
The indefinite articles are a/an, and these are used to talk about any nonspecific object/noun or to make general statements. In particular, they are used with countable, single nouns (we will get to plural, later).
A is used before consonants (s, n, t, etc.), while an is used before any word with a vowel sound or that starts with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u). Just remembers that consonants are basically any letter and its corresponding sound that are not vowels. In any case, pronunciation takes precedence – you’ll see this in the examples below.
an hour (h is silent in this case, forming a vowel sound, and so an is used)
a horse (h is pronounced in this case, forming a consonant sound, and so a is used)
an enemy (e/vowel sound)
a woman (w/consonant sound)
a purple penguin
an interesting movie
Now, what exactly makes something nonspecific and deserving of an indefinite article (a/an)?
Something/someone is nonspecific if you have never met them or seen them/it before, or if they are one of many. It isn’t something that you have immediately at hand and is removed from you, either physically or figuratively. Nonspecific also means that you aren’t referring to a specific individual, thing, or animal. This can be best illustrated with examples.
I saw a cat yesterday.
(While you certainly saw one, specific cat, it may be the first time you have seen this random cat walking down the street. Never met the cat before!)
I watched an elephant eat a monkey.
(Again, this is some crazy weirdo elephant that you have never seen before, you don’t know his name or who his owner is, you don’t know his current whereabouts or even where he comes from.)
A cup of coffee makes everything better.
(Here, you are speaking in general about coffee. You aren’t referring to a single, specific cup of coffee that you have in your possession at this very moment.)
The duty of a worker bee is to gather pollen.
(Again, this could be any worker bee. In general, all worker bees do this. You aren’t referring to a specific worker bee that you hold in your possession. If you hold her in your possession, please let her go!)
However, if we slightly modify the above examples and use PLURAL nouns instead of singular nouns, articles are no longer necessary.
I saw several cats yesterday on my street.
I watched elephants at the park.
Cups of coffee were sitting on the table.
Worker bees are hard at work.
Meanwhile, definite articles (the) are used to describe specific nouns. Specific nouns/things/people/animals may be definite in the sense that you know them or are familiar with them already. You are referring to a specific, known person or object, or perhaps a person or object or event that occurred at a specific place, date and time.
I saw the cat yesterday.
(This is a cat that you habitually see, perhaps it is the same cat always hanging out your neighborhood. You know exactly which cat you are talking about.)
I watched the elephant at the San Diego zoo eat a banana.
(This again, is a specific elephant. Not any old elephant, but the elephant in the picture that you took at the San Diego zoo.)
I watched an elephant at the San Diego zoo eat a banana.
(This is also correct, but the context changes slightly. You are referring to one of many elephants, and any one elephant in particular wasn’t very memorable.)
The cup of coffee is on the table.
(You are referring to a specific, single cup of coffee, that is physically at hand/at reach.)
The worker bee flew back to her hive, full of pollen.
(Again, here you are referring to a specific worker bee, not one of many.)
The best shoes are always found on sale.
(The often modifies superlatives: best, biggest, tallest, etc.)
Yesterday, I met the tallest man I had ever seen.
I purchased the most beautiful dress I could find.
So, perhaps an interesting perception from these examples is that the/an/a are also interchangeable in many cases, yet the meaning/significance of the sentence will change, ever so slightly.
In addition, abstract nouns (faith, love, hope, inspiration, hatred, etc.) often do not require articles (except in certain instances). This is different in Spanish and English, for example:
- El amor es difícil. (article required)
- Love is difficult. (no article required)
Here are some examples differentiating when an article would or wouldn’t be required:
- Hatred was nothing new to Joe. (hatred in general, Joe just happens to be a hateful person)
- The hatred Joe held for his distant relative never seemed to cease. (hatred for something specific/over a specific event or perhaps due to lifelong events).
Another interesting point that is particularly relevant to scientific or academic writing is that the is often repetitive and unnecessary. That’s right, the isn’t even always necessary, even in cases where it would be correct to use it. I believe this responds mostly to technical and scientific writing conventions. Let’s take the following example:
- The samples were taken from the rivers at point A and point B, during the dry and rainy seasons. (with articles)
- Samples were taken from rivers at point A and point B, during dry and rainy seasons. (without articles)
In general, I prefer the second statement, even though both are correct. Imagine that prior to the second sentence you had already talked about the rivers forming part of the sampling process. In this case, it is clear, even in the second sentence, that you are referring to specific rivers that are forming part of your study (and not rivers in general). This responds to a more direct, clear and succinct writing style.