What this resource is about:

This resource explains when to use the definite article (the), when to use an indefinite article (or an), and when you can go without articles altogether.  

Definite and Indefinite Articles

To do the exercises, think carefully about each noun using the following chart: 

  1. Is the noun singular and countable?
  2. If yes, is it definite?
  3. If yes, use ‘the’
  4. If no, use ‘a/an’
  5. If no, is it definite?
  6. If yes, use ‘the’
  7. If no, don’t use an article. 

Remember: If you have a singular countable noun then you must use an article in almost every case. (If you have words like my, oneeach or both before the noun, then no article is necessary.) If you don’t know whether a noun is countable or not, check in an English learner’s dictionary. There are many freely available online. Sometimes there is more than one choice when using an article – even native speakers disagree, depending on whether or not they feel the noun is definite or not. 

The Definite Article (the)

If your reader or listener understands what you are referring to, then you will usually need the definite article: 

  • I bought a book last week. The book is about trees. (You have just mentioned the book, so you both know which one.) 
  • We went to a wedding yesterday. The bride wore a lovely dress. (You have not mentioned the bride before, but you both know she is connected to the wedding.) 

Some things are taken to be common knowledge in English and therefore take the definite article: 

  • Decades – He was born in the 1920s. 
  • Currencies – The dollar is getting stronger against the pound.
  • Superlatives and ordinals – The second book in the series is the best.
  • Oceans, seas and many riversThe Nile flows into the Mediterranean. 
  • Plural or ‘united’ countries – The Maldives are much smaller than the United States of America. 
  • Adjectives used as nouns – The poor will always be a challenge for the rich in any country. 
  • Many organisations – The World Health Organisation has a detailed definition of health. A scientific categorisation – The zebra is native to Africa. 
  • A symbol – The Merlion is a symbol of Singapore. 
  • Unique nouns – The prime minister said she would call a conference on changes affecting the earth’s climate. (Each country has only one prime minister, so in that sense the person is unique.) 
  • Unique adjectives – The same people always take the only parking spaces available. 

Other word patterns which take the: 

  • Specific nouns modified by a relative clause – The paintings (which are) in the gallery 
  • Specific nouns followed by ‘of’ – The use of this procedure  
  • Plural nouns preceded by ‘of’ – e.g. None of the paintings were interesting. 

Common error: You cannot write most of paintings or none of paintings. It is either most of the paintings (definite) or most paintings (general).  

  • Most of the paintings in the exhibition were landscapes. (definite – we know which specific paintings – they are in the exhibition)  
  • Most paintings nowadays are quite abstract. (general – not specific paintings)

The Indefinite Article (a/an) 

If the noun is singular and countable, and this is the first time you have mentioned it, then you will usually need the indefinite article: 

  • I bought a book – we do not know which book. 
  • There is a bird outside – we do not know anything about the bird.  
  • Measurements and rates – Three times a week  

No article 

We do not need an article if a noun is plural or uncountable and it is not definite. 

  • Women generally live longer than men.  
  • Articles are difficult to use. 
  • Paint is hard to remove. 


Definitions can take a/anthe or no article. For example, 

  •  A library is a place where you find books. This means that any library is a place where you find books. 
  • The library is a place where you find books. This views the library as a particular type of place, representative of a category of buildings such as university buildings. 
  • Libraries are places where you find books. This means that all libraries are places where you find books.