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This week we are going to go back to basics and look at the words the, a and an. These words appear in almost every sentence and are an essential building block in the language. They are collectively known as articles.
We call the word “the” the definite article. We call the words “a and an” the indefinite articles. They are used in a similar way but at the same time are very different. Let’s look at the indefinite articles first.


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We use the indefinite articles for singular countable nouns. The difference between them is that we use “a” in front of nouns that start with a consonant sound and we use “an” in front of words that start with a vowel sound. Notice that I did not say a consonant or a vowel. It is all about the sound that the word starts with, not the letter. Let’s look at a few examples –

An apple
A chair

We use the definite article “the” also in front of nouns, but they can be singular or plural. For example –

The horse
The horses

The other main thing to remember is that the pronunciation changes depending on if it precedes a consonant sound or a vowel sound. For a consonant sound we say “thuh” and for a vowel sound it is pronounced “thee”.
One difference between the definite and indefinite articles is when we use them in context. We use the indefinite articles when we are introducing a noun for the first time in a conversation. For example –

Yesterday I bought a boat.
I ate an apple for breakfast.

We use the definite article when we then refer to the same thing or person we have talked about previously in the conversation. So continuing on with our example –

The boat I bought cost me $750,000.
The apple was very tasty.

The other main difference between the articles is dependent on whether we are referring to a specific thing or a general thing. If we are talking about a general thing, then we use the indefinite articles. For example –

• If there are five chairs in the room and the person says “Just take a seat” he is saying that you can take any chair you like, not just a specific one. The choice is yours.

If we are referring to a specific thing or something that is known by both the speaker and the listener, we use the definite article to describe it. For example –

• If there are 10 chairs in the room but only one table, it is obvious that if we refer to “the table” in the room it is a specific table, because there is only one. Similarly, if there are 10 chairs in a room but I want you to sit in a specific chair, I would say “Use the chair at the end of the table.” This sentence is full of definite articles because everything is specific and not just a general choice for the person.

As you can see, for such small words, they form a very important part of sentences and can sometimes be a little tricky to work out which one to use in which context.

Take a look at our questions and answers section and see if you can correctly identify which one to use in each sentence. Good luck.

K. Charles

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