Articles are among the most frequently used functional words in English. Therefore, we need to know when and how we are supposed to use them. Articles are very important because they can define a noun as specific or non-specific.
We use “a/an” to speak about unspecific singular/countable nouns.
Do you live in a flat or in a house?
Anna has been living in Switzerland for a year and she’s had the time of her life.
Please wait for me, I’ll be here in a minute.
I would prefer rice over meat.
I would prefer a rice over a meat.
If a noun (or a noun phrase) starts with a consonant sound, we should use “a” before it. If nouns or noun phrases begin with a vowel sound, including the silent “h”, we should use “an”.
There’s a mouse in the basement.
We need an avocado and an apricot for the sauce.
I'll be back in an hour.
We must pay attention to the actual sounds.
I need a university /juːnɪˈvəːsɪti/ with hands-on learning quite close to home.
I can't stand wearing a uniform /ˈjuːnɪfɔːm/.
You've had a one-track mind /ˌwʌn.træk ˈmaɪnd/ since you started your own business. There's only money that interests you.
We should use “an” before abbreviations which begin with “A”, “E”, “X”, “S”, “O”, “N”, “L”, “M”, “H”, “I”, “F”.
an MP’s wife
an FBI officer
But if this is an acronym, the same rule applies as with nouns.
We also use “a/an” to talk about an unspecified item, person, or event.
I'll be dead if I don't have a cup of coffee asap.
We use “a/an” in frequency expressions: three times a day, four times a week. The indefinite article can sometimes be used instead of the numeral “one”.
I go to the seaside twice a year.
Let's meet in half an hour.
I will be busy for a day or so, but you can call me.
We also use “a/an” when we are describing one item that belongs to a certain class of things or people.
A can opener is a device for opening tin cans.
When we speak about professions, we should use “a/an” before them.
What is the typical retirement age for a welder?
However, we don’t need to use articles after titles and job positions.
Mr. Phillips has taken on the post of Head of International Cooperation.
We use “the” to speak about specific nouns, when we know for sure who or what exactly we are talking about.
Where did Andrew find the key?
When uncountable nouns refer to a specific item, we should use “the” before them.
The sugar we bought at Spencer’s is much better than the sugar from our local supermarket.
Also, we use “the” with plural nouns when we are talking about a specific item that belongs to a class of people or things.
Flowers are so inspiring.
The vase had fallen down and all the flowers were scattered around the floor.
We often use “the” when we want to talk about unique objects.
the sky, the atmosphere, the equator, the North Pole, the ground, the Internet, the world.
The Sun is located in the middle of the solar system.
The Earth's atmosphere consists of several layers of gasses.
We also use “the” with the terms that describe geographical places in general.
The beach is a marvelous place to relax and have fun.
However, when we refer to a concept in general, we don’t use any articles.
I would like to know how long you can hold your breath underwater.
We always use the definite article with superlative adjectives.
The moment when you got down on one knee and proposed to marry me was the best in my life.
When we want to talk generally about plural and uncountable objects, we should use zero article.
Classical music has played a huge role in his life.
With the special times of the year, months, days of the week, and holidays – “Easter”, “New Year’s Day” or “Ramadan”, we use zero article.
As far as I know, he arrived on Sunday.
Easter is the holiest day of the year.
However, when we refer to “New Year” as a holiday period, we can use either zero article or “the”. We can also use “the” or zero article with “winter”, “summer”, “autumn”, and “spring” when we don’t want to specify which autumn, winter, summer or spring we mean exactly.
In (the) autumn I am going to spend as much time as I can in the country.
We use zero article with “midnight”, “noon” and “midday”, but we should use “the” with “morning”, “afternoon” and “evening”.
I'd like to see you in my office at noon.
When we use the words to communicate/contact, we should use “by” + zero article after them.
Feel free to contact me by post/phone/email.
When we are talking about transport, we should also use “by” + zero article.
We will go to Greece by bus/car/plane/sea/air.
We should use zero article before the name of a person or place. However, when we are talking about a family as a whole or about a well-known person, it’s better to use “the”.
The Byans left this city a long time ago. I think they moved to London.
We may use “the” or zero article when we are talking about the nation in general, however, we should use only “the” when nationalities end with -ss, -ch, -es, -sh, because these nouns have identical singular and plural forms.
a Swiss (individual) / the Swiss (nation)
The French consider their cheese and wine as the best in the world.