How to Use Articles in English

by | Nov 25, 2023 | Articles & Pronouns, Grammar content

A man walks into a pub with a dog. The barman says to the man, ‘what can I get you?’ The man says ‘a pint of lager please’, and the dog says ‘and a glass of your best white wine for me’.

This is not a great joke, although the idea of a talking dog who has expensive tastes in wine might make you chuckle (a type of laugh). I am including it here because it highlights a few rules on how to use articles in English.

Definite and Indefinite Articles in English

Essentially we will be looking at occasions when we use ‘the’ (the definite article), ‘a’ or ‘an’ (the indefinite articles) or no article at all, the common symbol being (-). As you will soon see, there are a few strange rules, but this is one area of grammar where increased exposure to, and practice of, the language tends to make the rules implicit, and the majority of my students have always enjoyed studying articles.

In the above joke, we have ‘a man’, ‘a pub’ and ‘a dog’, the ‘a’ basically meaning ‘one of many’ and showing that we don’t already know this man, pub or dog. Of course, ‘a’ would become ‘an’ if we were talking about ‘an old man’ or indeed ‘an ostrich’, as these words start with a vowel sound. This is a traditional way to start any story, whether it is a joke or not. The second time they are mentioned, they become ‘the man’ and ‘the dog’. However, ‘the barman’ has a definite article the first time he is mentioned, even though he could be one of a few bar staff in the pub that night.

That last rule goes back to the days when towns were small, and cities didn’t really exist. In each of these small towns or villages, you tended to have one of everything, so you got your meat from ‘the butcher’, your bread from ‘the baker’, and you probably had one dominant local pub that you called ‘the pub’. In this pub you probably had one barman, and this idea of one of everything has stuck. Perhaps ‘the’ in this case can mean ‘my local’ if there is more than one choice in the place where you live. ‘Shall we go to the cinema/theatre tonight?’ is a typical phrase you will hear now, whether in a small town or a city.

In the house, a similar thing occurs. Although there are many doors in the average house or flat, when you’re in a room you will talk about ‘the door’ as there is only one. Most people have only one kitchen or garage in their house, but nowadays people quite often have more than one bathroom and more than one television. However, you wouldn’t ask if you could use ‘a bathroom’ or turn on ‘a TV’, you would use ‘the’. With bedrooms, you tend to talk about one of the bedrooms, but the phrase ‘the bedroom’ is often used to talk about the main/the biggest bedroom.

Since we are looking at another vast grammar topic, I will try to make it clearer by separating the rules for the various articles (or lack of), though there will be some inevitable mixing within the rules.

THE (the definite article)

THE (the definite article)

We have already seen that this article is used when there is only one of something, for example a door in a room, so naturally it is used when there is only one of something in the world, for example ‘the Internet’, ‘the sun’ or ‘the moon’.

Our planet ‘Earth’ is usually expressed without an article when we are naming it among other planets but can be expressed with the definite article when we think of it as the only planet we live on and the only one that definitely has human life happening on it. So at school you probably learned the important facts that ‘the earth’ goes around ‘the sun’, and ‘the moon’ goes around ‘the earth’.

The monarch in any country will be referred to as ‘The King’ or ‘The Queen’ as there is only one, and when you use superlatives, you always say ‘the best’, ‘the biggest’, ‘the most famous’, which makes sense because you are obviously highlighting one specific person or thing as being unique from all the others.

Interestingly, although articles are believed to come before nouns, they can also be used before adjectives. Obviously this is no surprise if the adjective is followed by a noun, for example ‘the tall man’, but you can also use it without a noun to talk about groups of people. Therefore, you might hear  people say something like ‘the rich don’t care about the poor’ or ‘we give too much money to the unemployed in this country’, a common complaint in England. In this case ‘the rich’ means ‘rich people’ in a general way, although you could say ‘the rich in this country’ to be more specific.

A/AN (indefinite articles)

As well as the examples we have already seen, the indefinite articles can be seen before jobs, so for example if someone asks you the question ‘what do you do?’, which basically means ‘what is your job?’, you can say ‘I’m a teacher/an engineer’ etc…

A/An can also be used to mean ‘per’. For instance, if you are talking about the frequency with which you do something like clean the house or go to the cinema, you might see ‘once a week’ or ‘twice a year’.

Definite and indefinite articles in English

If you are describing a speed, for example when you are trying to convince the police that you weren’t speeding (driving too fast) on the motorway, you would probably say ‘officer, I was only driving at 65 miles an hour’. Please note here that the word ‘hour’ doesn’t start with a vowel. The rule for using ‘an’ is that it comes before a word starting with a vowel sound, the ‘h’ in ‘hour’ being silent.

As well as the examples we have already seen, the indefinite articles can be seen before jobs, so for example if someone asks you the question ‘what do you do?’, which basically means ‘what is your job?’, you can say ‘I’m a teacher/an engineer’ etc…

A/An can also be used to mean ‘per’. For instance, if you are talking about the frequency with which you do something like clean the house or go to the cinema, you might see ‘once a week’ or ‘twice a year’.

No Article

This is typically used when we generalise about things. There is an idea out there that ‘cat people’ (people who like cats) shouldn’t get together with ‘dog people’. Personally I like cats more than dogs but I’m happy with both! If you are talking about genders, someone might say something like ‘women have more empathy than men’. This sentence could continue with ‘but the men in my office who work as therapists have a lot of empathy’, the definite article used there to narrow down the selection of people being discussed.

There is a group of examples where a noun is followed by a short preposition without an article.

You go ‘to bed’, not to the bed or your bed, and you also go ‘to work’ and ‘to school/college/university’. When we are talking about forms of transport, you travel ‘by car/bus/train/plane/taxi’, not ‘by a car’ or ‘by the bus’, so again without an article. Walking is also a form of transport, and you travel ‘by foot’ (of course you use both feet to walk unless you hop, but the god of English language may not know that!).

There are some interesting examples where the use of an article depends on the context of the situation. If you are ‘at school’, ‘in prison’ or ‘in hospital’, you don’t use an article because you are there for the most obvious or common reason to be there (you are a student, prisoner or patient). However, you could be ‘in/at the school/prison/hospital’ because you are cleaning, having a meeting or visiting someone. We use an article here because we are just talking about being in or around the building or institution itself.

How to use Articles in English with Geographical Names

The final section of this article relates to geographical names, which are a mixture of (-) and ‘the’.

First of all, we never use articles in front of names of towns and cities, or indeed continents. With countries we don’t either but be careful because sometimes the country has the definite article in the name itself. The most famous examples of this are ‘The United Kingdom’ (or the UK), ‘The United States of America’ (or the USA or US), ‘The Netherlands’ (sometimes just called ‘Holland’), The Czech Republic’, ‘The Philippines’ and ‘The United Arab Emirates’ (or the UAE).

When we are talking about bodies of water, there is a curious situation where every body of water uses the definite article except lakes. Therefore, we can talk about ‘The Atlantic Ocean’, ‘The Mediterranean Sea’, ‘The River Ganges’ and ‘The Panama Canal’, but then we have ‘Lake Superior’. I remember a situation in the classroom where there was a tricky sentence to complete

The largest inland lake is ____ Caspian Sea.

Of course, the correct answer is ‘The Caspian Sea’ because it’s a sea, but one of my students made the valid point that it’s also a lake. I had to explain that the English language doesn’t know it’s a lake!

In terms of mountains, they have no articles, so you might have the sentence ‘Edmund Hillary was the first man to climb Mount Everest’, but if you asked which mountain range Everest was in, you would say ‘The Himalayas’. Other common mountain ranges are ‘The Andes’, ‘The Alps’, ‘The Rockies’ and ‘The Pyrenees’.

Finally, you use no article for normal roads/streets, parks, bridges, shops and restaurants, and you use the definite article for highways/motorways, theatres, cinema, hotels, galleries and museums.


I understand that I have presented a lot of rules here on how to use articles in English and a lot of them don’t seem to make sense or may seem to contradict each other, but as I mentioned at the start, you tend to learn them as you go along your learning path because they are so common in everyday speech.

As always, the best way is to get out there and start using articles as much as possible. Practise, practise, practise…

Good luck!

Anthony Rotunno

This article was written by Break Into English’s online teacher and blog contributor Anthony Rotunno.