Articles in English are tiny words that can cause big problems for learners. Many beginner students who don’t use articles in their native tongue can have trouble learning when to use a or the. Higher-lever students can also struggle with the many exceptions and quirks of article usage. Before getting into a beginner or intermediate lesson (see “Practice” below), try presenting the basic English articles a, an, and the in chart form to help learners compare and understand the differences.
1. Use a/an/ø with general nouns. What is a general (indefinite) noun? For example:
- I’m hungry. I want a sandwich. Can you see a sandwich right now? No? That’s why it’s a sandwich. I don’t have a specific sandwich in mind. I can’t see it, and you can’t see it. We don’t know which sandwich I’m talking about. It could be any sandwich.
2. Use the with specific nouns. What is a specific (definite) noun? For example:
- [The teacher gives a blue pen to a student] Kim, can you pass me the blue pen? Can everyone see the blue pen? Yes? That’s why it’s the blue pen. I know which pen it is. I can see it, and you can see it. I’m talking about only this one specific pen, and we all know which pen I’m talking about.
3. Use an before words that begin with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u) and a before words that begin with a consonant.
Note: Words that begin with a “u” or “h” take an if the noun begins with a vowel sound (e.g., an umbrella, an heir) and a if the noun begins with a consonant sound (e.g., a university, a house).
4. Use the when there is only one of something. Examples include the sun, the moon, the earth / the library, the bank, the laundromat (in a town) / the door, the whiteboard, the teacher’s desk (in your classroom).
5. Use the when it’s the second mention of the noun. Even though we still can’t see it, we know which one the speaker is talking about because it has been introduced. For example:
- I saw a movie last night. The movie was so boring that I fell asleep.
6. Use the when the noun has an adjective clause or phrase that modifies it. The extra information that describes the noun makes it clear which noun we’re referring to. For example:
- The dog that follows me home every day is really friendly.
ESL Library has two great lessons on Articles. Our new Articles – Beginner lesson covers a, an, and the, and provides many mixed exercises for practice. Our reformatted Articles – Intermediate lesson goes into great detail about the many uses and exceptions of English articles.
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