How to use articles in English

Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lessons post. This week we are looking at how to use articles in English. Our Lunchtime Lessons are are free Online English classes where we look at areas of English which are often difficult for students.

If you didn’t manage to join us for our live session, you can catch up with the highlights of the class below. If you’d like to join our live session for the chance to ask the teacher questions, you can book your place directly on our website. These classes are 100% free and are on Tuesdays at 12pm

How to use articles in English

Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lesson. We’re going to be talking about articles today. I’ve chosen articles because they are super confusing in English and I think there’s something like one hundred and fifty two rules of how to use articles or something ridiculous like that. In no way do I suggest learning one hundred and fifty two rules about articles. That’s not what this is class is about today.What we’re going to look at is the most important rules, and then we’re also going to look at some connections. With all of these other millions of rules, we’ll just group some of them to help you find some useful patterns. One more thing to say before we start,  articles really are not a communicative problem. If you use an article incorrectly, everyone’s going to understand you. It’s not a tragedy. You’ll be able to explain yourself perfectly. It is going to be an issue if you’re doing any exams because they get tested a lot.
 
But also in your writing, for example, they really stand out if you get them wrong. So we want to think about working with articles for accuracy, not really for communication purposes, and especially if you want to get an exam qualification. So that’s that’s what we’re thinking about here with articles today.
 
Before we start, we have got three questions here. So I want us to think about when we use the indefinite article, when we use the definite article and when we use the zero article.  See if you can remember when to use the indefinite article. So that means like “a banana”. What am I going to use the definite article for,  like “the man who’s sitting in the chair”, and when do I use the zero article? So that’s when I will not use an article like “bananas are great”.
 
We’re going to look at each of these three and think about the most common reasons that we’re using an article.

How to use the indefinite article in English

​So we’re going to start here with the indefinite article. So that’s A or AN. We use the indefinite article for the first time that you refer to something. This is why articles are particularly important in writing, because in writing they are going to give more specific information. So if I was writing a sentence and it’s the first time I refer to “the man”, for example, I would say “there was a man in the park”, but when I continue that sentence, I’ll use the definite article. So “there was a man in the park. The man was wearing black.”
 
We use the indefinite article with countable nouns. So, “I have a car, he owns a house, she bought a book”, but I wouldn’t say “I have a money“. I’d have to say “I have some money” because money is countable.
 
Can anyone tell me when we use A and when we use AN? It’s not actually to do with spelling , it’s to do with sounds. When it’s a consonant sound, we use A. But when it’s a vowel sound we use AN. So that’s why we have “a university”, because if you look at that, it actually begins with a consonant sound. And when it is a vowel sound like “x-ray” , because it begins with an /e/, we’d say AN as well. It’s a little thing, just watch for that.
 

How to use the definite article in English

​So the definite article, is used when we know what we’re referring to.  So “close the window” – there’s only one window. You know what I’m referring to. Or when we’ve already mentioned something“a man walked into a bar, the man said ouch”. This man and this man are the same. The other time that we use a definite article is when something is unique. So there’s only one of them. For example, “the earth moves around the sun“. OK, or you might talk about the king of Spain, the capital of France. In all of those examples, there’s there’s only one. All right, now,

How to use the zero article in English

​This is when we don’t need to use an article, OK? And the number one thing that you need to remember about that is when we are speaking in general, we do not use an article. Please be careful with this. So, for example,

  • “I like football”. – the sport.
  • Men and women are equal” – all of them.
  • “People believe that English is important” –  everybody.

If I was being specific, then I would need to use the  definite article.  If I say “I like the football” I’m not talking about the sport. I’m talking about the actual ball. If I say “the men and the women of this country are equal”, that’s because I’m being specific to this country. But if I want to generalize, I don’t need to use my article. Be really careful because this is where most people make mistakes. And there’s a really logical reason why we make this mistakes, if you have a Latin based language, because, of course, in Latin based languages, you always have an article, right? And that’s why we make that error.
 
So this is one of the most common errors that I hear students make. And it comes up a lot in speaking, because very often when you’re speaking, you’re generalizing. So if we go back to the point I made before about the exams, if you’re taking an exam, it can be a problem.
 
That’s because in, for example, part four of the Cambridge exams, you have to give your opinion on things where you are generalizing. You’ll very often hear people saying, “oh, the football is an important sport” –  football is an important sport. So please be careful with that.
 
Here are more times that we use the zero article, and this is when we’re going to start getting into the useful things to remember. So the three things that I’ve just discussed for each kind of article, think of those things as the rules, if you like. Those are the most important things you need to learn. These ones that we’re going to look at now, we’re going to think about them as patterns or as exceptions, and you learn them separately.
 
Please do not try and learn the one hundred and fifty two rules for articles because 1)  you will not learn them and 2) Life is far too short. So, when we talk about institutions, we usually don’t use an article. For example, “he’s in prison, at university, at home”. I know home isn’t technically an institution, but you can think of it as one. Right. And in school. So in these examples, it’s like you’re in the process of it. We could also use “in hospital”. So you’re in the process of going through an institution i, we don’t use an article. There are exceptions to that rule. I could say “he’s in hospital” or “he’s in the hospital”. This is slightly different. So if I’m saying “he’s in hospital”, he’s ill and he’s going through the process of getting better. If I’m saying “he’s in the hospital”, I’m talking more about the specific hospital or the building. And again, this is why it’s important for your writing, because if you’re analyzing a piece of writing, these little things can actually make a difference.
 
These words never have an article.

  • breakfast
  • lunch
  • dinner

 I don’t eat the breakfast. I eat breakfast, lunch. And I eat dinner. Days of the week also have zero articles. Again, if you’re coming from a Latin based language, that’s problematic for you because in your language, you always have an article with these examples.

How we use articles when we talk about towns and cities

​This is a good example of grouping. I’m going to show you ones for towns and cities and I’m going to show you ones related to geography, because those are two of the most common things where there’s lots of stuff going on. So if we’re talking about places in a town, these always take the article. So I will talk about the bank or the park or the supermarket. Imagine you’re giving somebody directions. I would say to you,“Where is the park?” and you say “the park is this way”. We’ll also use it to talk about hotels, theaters or museums. So “Where is the Balmoral Hotel?” If we’re thinking about Edinburgh specifically, or “Where is the Playhouse Theatre?”, or “at the Louvre”. In all of those examples I would use an article. However for all of these I do not. 

  • streets (except the High Street)
  • public squares
  • hospitals
  • stadiums
  • malls
  • parks
  • churches
  • temples
  • universities

How we use articles when we talk about geography

​Geography is another really commonly confused one, because it’s got lots of confusing things!. If you have a nationality which is functioning as a noun, for example, we might talk about French as the language, but I can also use French to describe the people from France, then I’m going to use an article> So I will talk about “the Americans voted for Joe Biden” or “the French are very sophisticated”.
 
I don’t use it before countries. So Spain, not the Spain is in Europe, but if they’ve got these kind of words, we will use an article

  • “States”
  • “Kingdom”
  • “Republic”
  • “Emirates”
  • “Union”
  • “Coast”, etc.

So we’ll talk about the United States, the U.K., the Ivory Coast. And we don’t use it if we’re talking about states or provinces or cities. So I wouldn’t say “the  Edinburgh”.

Sometimes is specifically part of the name and then we can include it. Or if you have words like territory or coast in there, we will use it, for example “he would live in California”, but we talk about the Northwest Territories in Canada. And then words like the Netherlands and generally, if a country is a group of islands or a group of pieces, like these ones here, the Philippines or the Maldives or the Bahamas. In those cases we’re grouping them together, that’s also going to use an article.
 
We also use THE in these examples of geography,. If you’re talking about

  • oceans 
  • seas
  • coasts
  • rivers
  • archipelagos
  • collections of lakes,
  • chain of mountains

use the definite article. You might notice, when we’ve got anything that’s collective, for example, the United States of America, the the United Kingdom, when we’re grouping things together, like mountain chains as well, we’re using definite articles. Deserts are also with the definite article, and references. So if it’s the equator or the South Pole or the North Pole, and regions, we use a definite article. 

Summary

​So do they matter? This is what I said at the beginning of the class. That’s a lot of rules, OK, and that’s just a selection that I’ve grouped together for you. If you want to, there’s there’s websites that list all of them, and it’s very boring to read! So you need to think about whether they matter.Like I said, it really depends if you’re doing Cambridge exams especially, IELTS as well, but not so much because of what they test, then it is really important. Think of the Cambridge exams, things like the open cloze, or also the the key word transformation questions, they will quite often involve articles. You also want to think about them in your writing. Like I said, it is actually quite important because  articles can change meaning.
 
When someone’s speaking, that’s not really important. But when you’re reading it can be important and again, especially for exams. So you need to think about how things are being marked. In general,  these errors will be considered basic errors, even though it’s actually really complex to use an article. We’ve just said there’s about one hundred and fifty rules. That’s really hard. But even the fact that it is difficult, they still tend to be marked as basic errors. So you do need to be careful about it. But in terms of communicating, it’s really not an issue. Having said that, you need to think about your English goals and what you need English for. If you are someone who is very confident speaking fluently, it’s probably time for you to consider your accuracy, and start to consider those errors. And if you’re making these mistakes, if you’re someone that is not very fluent, I wouldn’t worry so much about this right now in your speaking, that’s not what you need to focus on.
 

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