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Why study articles?

English nouns (words for a person, place, thing, or quality) have to be identified in some way. You use articles (a, an, the) in front of nouns to signal to the reader what you are referring to: a single entity, multiple or generic entities, or a specific entity. When used correctly, articles can add clarity to your writing.

Main problems of use

The main problems with English articles relate to the following:

  • when to use them and when to leave them out

  • which articles to use - indefinite articles (a or an) or the definite article (the or  no article (Ø)

  • the use of articles with countable nouns (nouns with plural forms; e.g. girl-girls, city-cities), uncountable nouns (nouns that do not have a plural form, e.g. news, work, information, equipment, knowledge, and proper nouns (name of a person, place, or thing, e.g. Auckland University)

If you do not yet make these decisions automatically, you need to think about:

1. What type of noun you are using

2. What context you are using the noun in:

a. specific (pointing to something exactly)
b. general (referring to anything everywhere)
c. number (one or many)

Why study articles?

View this presentation on the importance of articles in writing.

Why study articles   [open in new window|view inline]

How well do you use articles?

Do the quiz on the next page to find out.

How well do you use articles?

Select the correct article to complete each sentence.

Ø, abstract quality global warming is partly caused by the burning of Ø, plural fossil fuels.

2   In many companies, the, 'of employees' makes the noun specific welfare of employees is often overlooked.

3   The South Island of Ø New Zealand is characterised by Ø rugged terrain.

4   Barack Obama is the first black US president.

5   Ø People taking part in a conversation know that the way they express themselves is important.     


The English Articles: A, An, The or None

Some common mistakes:

Missing (^) article:

       The                                           a

e.g.  ^Government is considering ^new law to restrict car ownership.


Article used when not needed:

e.g. The cats make the good pets.  

e.g  The car ownership is increasing in New Zealand.   


Wrong article:

e.g.  XA /An understanding of logistics is valuable.

       She is paid at X a /an hourly rate.               

e.g.  X A /The government is considering X a/the new law to restrict car ownership.

e.g.  Doing charity work gives people a / Xthe sense of achievement.    

How to learn articles?

Articles precede nouns. Therefore, it is useful to begin by asking what kind of noun it is:

  • Is the noun countable (has plural forms), uncountable, or a proper noun?
  • Is the context in which the noun is used, specific (pointing to 'this/that one exactly), general (a general idea applying to all and everywhere), a single or plural entity?

View the flow-chart below summarising these guidelines. 

Article decision tree   [open in new window|view inline]

Quiz 2: Decision Tree

Article Decision Tree

For each sentence in the first box, decide which article should go in front of the noun(s) in bold italics. Click on the correct boxes on your way to find the correct article. 

 Even if you know the answer, complete the decision tree to check it.

 The Origin of @

Modified from: Bailey, S. (2003). Academic Writing: A Practical Guide for Students. London: RoutledgeFalmer. (p. 92).

You can click this link to open the decision tree in new window to practice, if it is not showing in this tab.

A or An? - Practice

Write a or an in the spaces. Hint: Say the word out loud to hear if it starts with a vowel or consonant sound. NOTE: A vowel sound is preceded by 'an'; a consonant sound by 'a'.

1    an unpaid bill   

2    a U-turn   

3    an hourly rate

4    a useful device   

5    a European design

6    an intelligent interface

7    an F grade

8    a universal problem

9    an honourable person

10  an idea

11  a clever idea

12  a harmful drug

13  an equal opportunity

14  an x-ray

Complete the following tasks with a, an, or x (for no article needed).    

NOTE: No article (X) is needed if

  • the noun is already identified by a unique name (e.g. Auckland University, Auckland Domain)
  • the noun is an uncountable noun referring to a concept, entity, or quality (e.g. education, kindness, gold)
  • the noun is plural, referring to a generic category or class in general statements (e.g.X Computers are X useful machines.)

Task 1:

1   An incident on X Symonds Street created a massive traffic jam that lasted for hours.

2   X cloth is a material made by weaving wool, silk, cotton or linen.

3   X Nescafe is an instant coffee which is drunk all over the world.

4   X rice is a food eaten as the staple diet in most Asian countries.

5   A university is an institution which provides X tertiary education.

6   X coffee is a drink which is made from the roasted and ground beans of the coffee shrub.

7   X steel is a material commonly used for building purposes.

8   X IR34 is a rice which is taller than other varieties, and is more resistant to X major insects and diseases.

9   X diamond is a precious stone of X pure carbon, harder than any other known substance.

10 X knowledge is X power.

11 A scientist in America has discovered a possible cure for X cancer.

Task 2: A report
The patient is an elderly woman. Mrs Dorothy Brown was admitted to A&E at 4.45 p.m. She had been in a road accident approximately forty minutes earlier. When she was admitted to x hospital, Mrs Brown was fully conscious and able to talk coherently. However, she was suffering from x shock and she was vague about what had happened. A policeman gave x staff a description of what he knew about the accident.   
Mrs Brown had been driving along Riverside Road when she hit a stationary tanker carrying x chlorine parked at the side of the road on a blind bend. The front of her car was seriously damaged, the steering wheel was pushed forward by the impact and came into contact with the lower part of Mrs Brown's face and chest. Chemicals did escape from the tanker but it was not clear on admission if Mrs Brown had come into contact with them.

The? No Article? : Practice

Go over this review before proceeding to the practice exercises or review the decision tree flow chart.

The definite article 'the' specifically points to a noun:

I was born on 1 April 1940, the third of six children. in the small village of Ihithe in the central mountains of Kenya. To the north, the great Mount Kenya cut into the skyline. My parents were poor farmers and members of the Kikuyu tribe.




The definite article 'the' is always used with:

  • superlatives (the best, the most famous)
  • time (the 18th century)
  • unique references (the government, the moon, the planet)
  • regions and rivers (the south, the Waikato River)
  • very well-known people or group of people (the Nobel Prize winner; the Prime Minister, the Dean of the Arts Faculty)     
  • institutions (the United Nations)
  • positions (the middle, the first)


Not used with:

  • names of countries or institutions, except the USA, the UK, the University of Auckland and a few others
  • companies named after people or places (Auckland University, Bond and Bond, Harvey Norman, Smith & Caughey.)


NOTE: No article (X) is needed if

  • the noun is already identified by a unique name (e.g. Auckland University, Auckland Domain)
  • the noun is an uncountable noun referring to a concept, entity, or quality (e.g. education, kindness, gold)
  • the noun is plural, referring to a generic category or class in general statements (e.g.X Computers are X useful machines.)

Select the correct article from the options given to complete the following texts.

Text 1: Internet Issues  

The Internet is an amazing information resource. Ø Students,Ø teachers, and Ø researchers use it as an investigative tool.Ø Journalists use it to find Ø information for Ø stories. Ø Doctors use it to learn more about Ø unfamiliar diseases and the latest medical developments. Ø Ordinary people use it for Ø shopping, Ø banking, and communicating with Ø family and Ø friends. It is inevitable that Ø people all over the world use it to connect with Ø individuals from Ø other countries and cultures.

 Source: Brown, K., & Hood, S. (2002). Academic Encounters: Life in Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  (p. 129)

Text 2: Energy and Fuels 

Ø Coal is the least efficient, unhealthiest, and most environmentally damaging fossil fuel.

2  Today, it provides around 40% of the world's energy needs, mostly fuelling automobiles.

The first wells were drilled 2400 years ago, but Ø modern industry was born in the 1850s.

The majority of oil comes from the Middle East.

Ø Natural gas, which is mostly methane, is the cleanest fossil fuel by weight.

6  In the next few decades, one way for the UK to meet greenhouse gas commitments, could be Ø increased nuclear power generation.

Ø Hydroelectric power is now the most common form of Ø renewable energy, supplying 20% of the world's electricity.

Ø Hydrogen fuel cells have Ø enormous potential if Ø technical problems can be solved.

9  Increasing Ø efficiency in energy production could also yield Ø massive savings, as it did during the oil crisis of the 1970s.

Challenge Tasks

These final activities give you practice using articles in different contexts.

Click here to view the article flowchart (simplified).

Before doing the final practice exercises, review the general rules by asking the following questions about each noun. Go back and look at Frame 4 if you need to.

  Describing a process


In spoken English, a, an and the are often unstressed and linked to other words, making articles difficult to recognise in context.  

1. Click on the link to view a video clip about the air-conditioning process. As you listen, insert a, an or the into the blanks.

2. Listen again to review the answers. Pay special attention to the use of indefinite articles a/an (for first, non-specific reference) and the definite article the (for second, specific reference).

How Air-conditioning Works

The basic idea behind any air-conditioner is evaporation. When a liquid evaporates, it feels cool. If you put alcohol on your skin, you can feel the coolness as it evaporates. An air-conditioner contains a liquid that evaporates; it's a lot like alcohol, but it evaporates at a lot lower temperature. The liquid evaporates inside the house. It evaporates inside a set of metal coils and the liquid makes the coils extremely cold. A fan blows air across the coils. That air is what cools the house down. When it evaporates, the liquid turns into a gas. To turn that gas back into a liquid, you use a compressor. The compressor squeezes the gas but it gets really hot in the process. The fan in the coils in the backyard let the air-conditioner blow the heat off the liquid. That liquid goes back into the house to evaporate. It is a continuous cycle, with the gas turning into a liquid turning back into a gas. Your house is getting cool the entire time.

Insert either a, an, the, or X (for no article needed).

Usain Bolt: The world's fastest man tests the limits of human performance and carries a nation in his wake.

The world's fastest man sprinted past the coconut tree, down the winding hill and into the village of Cascade. Usain Bolt is home in Jamaica, filming a commercial for the national tourism agency, which is banking on his global stardom to lift the country's recession-racked economy. Cascade does not have much to advertise as a vacation hot spot. It is an impoverished village in the interior of a struggling country, where a handful of bars, X fruit stands and X vendors peddling X straw hats  count as the downtown business district. But Cascade does have Bolt. 

X Bolt's exploits sent physicists and biologists racing to predict the limits of X human speed. In a paper titled "Velocity Dispersions in a Cluster of Stars: How Fast Could Usain Bolt Have Run?", Norwegian physicist Hans Eriksen, a cosmologist who recently studied the origins of the universe at X Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, predicted that if Bolt had not celebrated at the end of his 100-m victory in X Beijing and had instead matched the acceleration of the second-place runner or slightly exceeded it, he would have clocked anywhere from 9.55 to 9.61 sec., rather than his winning 9.69. Two Dutch statisticians employed something called X extreme value theory to call 9.51 sec. the ultimate 100-m record. Stanford biologist Mark Denny reached into his math toolkit to predict that 9.48 sec. would be the human speed limit.

Source: Gregory, S. (2009).Usain Bolt. Time. 69, 73.


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