32The Article System: A, An, & The

by Danny K. Howard, EAP Associate Director

When I look at students’ writing, articles seem to be one of the most common mistakes. A lot of students try to buy books on articles to give them more information about it, but I believe reading this article is enough to understand most of it. In my opinion, articles and prepositions are the most difficult parts of writing English sentences, so I thought it would be good to write a study tip especially for this problem. There are basically 3 things that you must do to understand the article system better:

1) Understand the basic rules

Below are some (but not all) of the general rules on article. Review them to understand them better!

  1. #1 The is used when the situation is specific; a is used in general situations
    I bought the book for my friend. (the specific book that we both know about)
    I bought a book for my friend. (just any book that you found)
  2. #2 Use a the first time you mention something and the after that
    When I went shopping, I bought a nice red sweater. However, I thought the sweater was very expensive.
  3. #3 The is used when –est or most is used
    Akiko is the nicest girl in class. Her mother is the most talented woman.
  4. #4 The is used in front of some countries, rivers, seas, and some groups of mountains 
    On my vacation last year, I took a cruise boat on the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom. 
    The Rockies are beautiful this time of the year.
  5. #5 The is used for instruments, inventions, and animal species
    Susan plays the guitar. Hiromi plays the piano. The automobile is a greater invention than the telephone.
    The African elephant is a powerful animal.
  6. #6 The is used for something unique or special
    Some people are worried about the ozone layer. (there is only one ozone layer)
  7. #7 No article is needed at all for non-count nouns and most plural count nouns
    We bought furniture at the store. We looked at cars because I want to buy one.
  8. #8 The is used before certain words: wrong, right, first second, only, same
    The first reason is very simple. She got the right answer to the question.
    John watched the same game that I watched. The only reason why I came was to see you.
  9. #9 The is used before a noun + of + noun pattern in English
    I read a book about the street children of India. 

2) Get feedback on your writing

One reason why students make so many mistakes with articles is that they never write or get feedback from teachers. Feedback means someone checks your sentences and helps you find mistakes. At NIC, all students’ writing gets feedback from teachers. Students write many papers each week. After teachers collect them, students have to rewrite them to improve the grammar & content. If you do some of the writing ideas from the Study Tips, you can send them to me for feedback!

3) Use the books and newspapers around you to reinforce your understanding

You really don’t have to buy a book to show you the article system. English is all around you! Look at books, newspaper articles, magazines and other English sources and check the articles. Look at how they are being used. Compare this to some of the rules above. If you discover another rule, write it down and remember it. 

Look at this article:
Today started out to be a terrible day. The first part of the day was the worst part. I woke up to the sound of rain. I was really hungry, so I had bacon and eggs. To my surprise, the bacon was too greasy and the eggs were too salty. I also made coffee because I need it every morning. However, the coffee I made was very bitter. I couldn’t drink it at all. Then I turned on the television to watch my favorite program. I watched a show about the alligator. It was interesting, but 30 minutes after it started, the television stopped working. I was very angry. Things were not going well for me at all. Finally, my luck changed. The sun came out and everything started to get better. My bad day turned out fine after all. 

If you look at the paragraph above, you can see many of the rules in this Study Tip. I know using articles is very difficult to understand completely, but making this effort above will be helpful. Take care!