Using English Articles – 3 Simple Rules To Fix Common Grammar Mistakes & Errors

Lesson Overview

Even though articles are a challenging part of speaking English, they are a really important part of English! They give information about the noun they come before and using articles incorrectly can make your sentences confusing or sound strange! To improve your English fluency and sound more natural you need to use English articles well. To get better exam results, you need to improve the way you use articles – especially in your writing tests!

There are three English articles – a, an and the. It is also possible to have no article. Using each of these articles changes the meaning of your sentence.

There are lots of rules and lots of exceptions for using English articles, so in this lesson, I’ve tried to explain it more clearly for you through three simple rules!

Video Transcript
Section 1
Hello! I’m Emma from mmmEnglish and in this lesson we’re working on your English grammar, specifically on how to use articles.

Now I know this is a lesson that you need to watch. There are three English articles, “a“, “an” and “the“. It is possible to have no article and using one or the other changes the meaning of your English sentences. But more on that later!

Articles are a challenging part of speaking English but they’re a really important part. They give information about the noun that they come before.

Using articles incorrectly can make your sentences confusing or sound strange. And mistakes with articles are quite obvious to native speakers. They probably won’t correct you, but they’ll notice them – even though you’ll probably be understood if you make mistakes with articles. Using the incorrect article is one of the most common errors that English learners make.If you’ve ever emailed me or messaged me on Facebook, I’ve probably seen it in your writing too.

These mistakes happen all the time – without you even realising it! But there is a reason why these kind of mistakes are so common! There are lots of different rules about how to use articles and lots of exceptions too!

So to make articles a little easier for you, I’ve broken this lesson down into three main rules that you need to know about using English articles. Now, I’m not going to teach you every rule about English articles. I don’t want to scare you away so much that you never come back!

I’m going to teach you some principles that will help you to use articles better. Remember, that articles are used with English nouns. So, nouns play an important part in your decision to use an article. The type of noun is important.

There are two types of articles in English, definite and indefinite. And it’s probably easier for me to show you how they work. This table will help to make it a little clearer. Thinking about English nouns, we know that there are countable and uncountable nouns. Countable nouns can be singular or plural. So there’s a lot to think about and it really affects how you use articles.

If a noun is singular and countable, then you can use the indefinite article “a” or “an“. When a noun is plural, so when there is more than one of that noun, the definite article, “the“, can be used. And though we can’t use the indefinite singular articles “a” and “and“, we can use “some” when we’re not being specific.

Now, this technically is not an article but if you’re using a plural noun and you’re not being specific, “some” is the perfect choice. So for the singular countable noun, strawberry, I can say “A strawberry“. I can say “The strawberry” when I’m being specific. If I’m using the plural form of that noun, strawberries, then I can use “some” if I’m not being specific.

I would like some strawberries please” or I can use “the“, the definite article with my plural noun. “Could you pass me the strawberries?”

The difference between the definite and the indefinite articles is the difference between talking about a specific pen, a unique pen, or any pen at all – it doesn’t matter!

Like I said, we’re going to focus on three main rules today. Learn these rules and you will choose the correct article most of the time.

The first rule explains when we use “the“, the definite article and when we use “a” or “an“, the indefinite article. The second rule deals with unique nouns, which usually require the definite article. And the third rule explains why we sometimes leave articles out.

If you do need an article, when should you use an indefinite article and when should you use the definite article? Great question!

Rule #1

Let’s talk about rule number one. Indefinite articles, “a” and “an” are used when you first introduce someone to a noun. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking or writing. When you first introduce a countable noun, you need to use “a” or “an“, then you can use the definite article, after you have introduced the noun. I want to demonstrate this for you with a very simple story.

  • I saw a person yesterday.
  • The person was sitting under a tree.
  • The tree was very tall.
  • The person stood up when they saw a cat.
  • The cat jumped on a wall to try and catch a bird but the bird flew off the wall.

This rule is about ensuring that the reader or the listener knows which specific noun you’re talking about. As soon as you’ve made this clear to the person, you can use the definite article every time you use it.

Now we know which bird, of all of the possible birds in the world that it could be, we know which specific bird you’re talking about. So, we can use the definite article.

Rule #2

The second rule. When a noun is unique, use the definite article. When something is unique, there is only one of that thing. That’s when we use the definite article. The definite article is “the“. The sun”, “The president”, “The Queen of England” andThe capital city” are all examples of this. There is only one of these nouns. They’re unique. This is especially true for nouns that are well-known by most people. But it’s even true when the listener might not know the noun.

  • Who’s he?
    He’s the president of the United States.
    He’s the CEO.
    He’s the mayor.

Compare it to:

  • Who’s she?
    She’s a member of parliament.
    She’s an accountant.
    She’s an engineer.

There is more than one of these nouns, so that noun is not unique.

Now, I’m going to keep giving some more examples to rule number two. And remember, for rule two, we’re thinking about nouns that are unique. There’s only one of these nouns. But this uniqueness, it doesn’t need to be really obvious, it can come through the context.

So for example,A truck crashed into a tree. The driver was not injured.” Once we introduce the car, we know, by association, that there could only be one driver because there was only one car or one truck mentioned. So the driver is unique in the story. There’s only one driver that we could possibly be talking about.

Keep thinking about this idea of a unique noun as we continue. When you’re using superlative adjectives:

  • the best place
  • the worst thing
  • the fastest runner
  • the tallest mountain
  • the most interesting person I’ve met

You need to use the definite article because there can only be one person, place or thing that can be the fastest or the most expensive.

  • Paul is taller than Steve and Greg but Tom is taller than Paul. And Adam is the tallest.

There are many boys who are taller than Greg but only one person can be the tallest, that’s Adam.

Also, use the definite article for named things. By naming them, they become unique. So for example:

  • The Himalayas
  • The Amazon River
  • The Indian Ocean
  • The United Nations
  • The Eiffel Tower
  • The 8:06 bus

All of these nouns are unique but there are some exceptions, like the names of people – we don’t usually use an article. The names of lakes and islands don’t usually use articles, “Phi Phi Island” or “Lake Victoria” except when these nouns are plural, like:

  • The Great Lakes
  • The Galapagos Islands

These exceptions are what makes articles very frustrating in English but don’t give up!

When you’re ordering things, so when ordinal numbers like second, fifth, are used as adjectives, for example:

  • The second time
  • The third example
  • The fourth person to call

So in other words, once you place an order on an object, they hold a unique position in that order and so you can use the definite article.

Rule #3

OK lastly, why do we use an article with a noun sometimes and at other times we don’t use an article at all? This is the third rule. When we’re speaking about a noun in general, we’re not being specific about which particular noun, we usually leave the article out. And if it’s countable, you need to use the plural form.

Let’s use a countable noun, this pen, as an example. When we’re talking about an actual pen or pens that really exist, we use an article, definite or indefinite. In the following examples we’re speaking of specific or actual or real pens that exist.

“Can I borrow the pen?” That’s a specific pen.
The pen that’s on your desk.” Singular and specific.
The pens are in your bag.” That’s a plural noun, right? And with the definite article.

But we can also make general statements about pens and when we do, we speak generally, this is when we can leave the article out. For example,

  • I prefer to use black pens
  • I never have pens when I need them
  • I bought pens for you to use

It is absolutely possible to use an article or leave it out but the meaning will be different in each case.

  • I really like eating cake

This is a general statement about cake – could be any cake but compare it to:

  • I really like the cake you made

It’s a statement about a specific cake, a cake that I’ve actually eaten.

When speaking generally about a countable noun, you need to use the plural form. So for example, “I’m allergic to strawberries”. So strawberries in general.

  • Australians like to eat eggs for breakfast

Just eggs in general, not specific eggs.

If you’re talking about something that is uncountable like information or knowledge or equipment, then just use the noun in its original form because obviously it doesn’t have a plural form.

So for example,The information is available at the counter” and that’s specific information, something that we’ve already been talking about. “Information is available at the counter” is a very general statement. General information.

Okay I know that that was a big lesson and a lot to take in. You should probably watch it again to really let all of the information sink in. I’ve made you a cheat sheet and a worksheet that’s going to help you to practise using what you learned in this lesson. You can download it right here.

But before you do go there, let’s just go over those three important rules to just to make sure you remember them.

The first rule explains when we use “the” and when we use “a” or “an“, the definite and the indefinite articles. Remember the story about the person and the cat and the bird? When you’re introducing something that is probably unknown to the listener or the reader, you need to use “a” or “an” or “an“. Then any time after that, you can use “the“.

The second rule deals with unique nouns which usually use the definite article. Now I gave you lots of different examples about how nouns can be unique and we also talked about how “the” should usually be used with ordinal numbers, when they’re adjectives.

The third rule explains why we sometimes leave articles out – that’s when we’re talking generally about something.

Now remember, that these three rules are great but they’re general rules. They work most of the time. Unfortunately, there will always be some exceptions with articles, but don’t lost hope! These three rules are going to help you make better choices about using English articles, so that you can really improve your English grammar. Don’t forget to download the worksheet, up here!

The mmmEnglish worksheets are great because I’ll also send you a bonus audio guide of me explaining the answers for you. So if you do get any of them wrong, you’ll know exactly why. To keep practising English grammar, check out this lesson here. And to improve your pronunciation and speaking skills, try my imitation lessons right here.

I hope that you enjoyed this lesson and I will see you again next week for the next lesson. Bye for now!


Links mentioned in the video

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