When should I use `a` and `the`?

asked Nov 08 '10 at 15:04 Mark New member

2 answers


I know one simple rule.

  • 'A/an' articles should be used in places where you could put word 'any'.
  • Article 'the' - in places where you could put words 'this/that'.
link comment answered Nov 12 '10 at 14:14 Roman Vorushin New member

This is question is normally answered during the course of many English lessons, but I'll do my best to keep it short and sweet.

a/an - the indefinite article

Use it:

- to refer to something for the first time

There's a cat on the gate.

Would you like a cup of tea?


- to refer to a member of a group 

I am a painter. (One of many, from the 'painter' group)

He is a Spaniard and a Catholic. (One of many Spaniards and one of many Catholics)

Do you have any vacancies on a Saturday next month? (One Saturday of many)


- to refer to a kind  of something

The girl had a round face. (What kind of face? A round one.)

Our old piano had an eery tone. (What kind of tone? An eery one.)


- in exclamations, which include 'what' and 'such'

What a beautiful view!

That is such a pity!


- to mean 'one' when referring to a single thing or person

She'll have a cookie.

I bought a bag of chips and a sandwich.


NOTE: We also use the indefinite article with some numbers, in place of the word 'one': a hundred , a thousand, a million, etc.


-/the - the zero article and the definite article

There are many rules for when to use the definite article, 'the'.  In the following, I have written only the most general and functional rules.  Specific rules for certain nouns are not included.


Use the definite article when:

1. a noun is defined by a phrase that follows it.

The car that we used last night. (Which car? The one we used last night.)

2. it is obvious from the context what is referred to. (Example needed.)

3. we mention the noun a second time or use a substitute noun.

There is a cat on the gate.  The feline jumped down after a mouse. (Which feline? The cat which was on the gate.)

4. we refer to something unique (including superlatives). 

This is the best coffee I've ever had! (Which coffee is it? The best.)

The President of the U.S.A. is Barack Obama. (a president is a unique person.)


Use the zero article/ don't use the definite article:

1. when we focus on the type of institution rather than a particular or specific building.

I went to university in Canada.

2. before plural nouns that are general, not specific.

I love cookies! BUT:  I love the cookies you gave me!

3. before abstract nouns.

We have hope and preserverance.

link comment answered Jan 19 '11 at 20:34 Kimberly Expert

Your answer

Write at least 20 characters

Have a question about English grammar, style or vocabulary use? Ask now to get help from Grammarly experts for FREE.