Articles

Types of Articles and Meanings

Articles are members of the larger class of pronominal modifiers known as DETERMINERSOpens in new window. Articles are generally recognized as one of the most difficult and intractable problems that non-native speakers have with English grammar. Many learners attain near-native-speaker competence in English but still feel insecure about correctly using articles.
  • Articles define “which?” noun is meant. English has two basic types of articles: definite (the) and indefinite (a/an). The use of these articles depends mainly on whether you are referring to any member of a group, or to a specific member, as you will learn in this study.

The terms definite and indefinite designate meanings associated with the noun that an article precedes.

DEFINITE implies that a noun is “specifically identifiable.” The use of the definite article, the, therefore, presupposes that the speaker and the listener can identify the noun that follows it. For example, in sentence 1), we can presume that the speaker is referring to a particular noise that the person addressed can also hear.

  • 1)  Can you do something about the noise?

INDEFINITE means “identifiable in general.” The indefinite article, a/an, occurs when the listener is not expected to be able to identify the object specifically. The listener may know the concept represented by the noun, but that is all. The contrast between indefinite and definite articles in 2) illustrates this distinction.

  • 2a)  Bring me a screwdriver. → indefinite article
  • 2b)  Bring me the screwdriver. → definite article

In 2a), the speaker assumes that the person addressed knows what a screwdriver is. The request is for any object within the category “screwdriver” — a Philips screwdriver, a flathead screwdriver, or any other screwdriver. However, in 2b), the speaker assumes that the listener has knowledge of a specific screwdriver, which they both can identify, and it is this particular screwdriver that is requested.

The indefinite article, a/an, can express at least two kinds of indefiniteness. It can express the idea of “one,” as 3a) demonstrates, in which a new dress means “one new dress,” and it can also indicate membership in a particular group or set, as is the case in 3b), in which a veterinarian means “a member of the class of doctors who care for animals.”

  • 3a)  Xochitl bought a new dress.
  • 3b)  My brother is a veterinarian.

the occurrence of articles in sentences

The grammar of articles is fairly straightforward. It involves understanding the distinction between count nouns such as lamp, pen, or child, which have plural forms (several lamps, two pens, many children), and noncount nouns, such as stuff, furniture, or information, which do not have plural forms. Hence, such constructions as (three stuffs, several furnitures, many informations) are ungrammatical.

The definite article may appear before singular and plural count nouns, as shown in 4), and before noncount nouns, as is the case in 5).

  • 4a)  Give him the key. → singular count noun
  • 4b)  Give him the keys. → plural count noun
  • 5)  I gave him the information that he wanted. → noncount noun

The definite article does not normally occur before people’s names, as 6a) and 6b) illustrate. In many languages, however, it is common practice to use a definite article with a person’s name or with a person’s title and name, which can cause learners to err.

  • 6a)  I would like to meet Donald.
  • 6b)  I would like to meet the Donald.

There are, however, cases in which it is appropriate to use the with a person’s name. For example, the definite article is used before a person’s name if the speaker wishes to single out a particular person who might be confused with someone else, as in 7a); this use involves a modifier that specifies the noun.

  • 7a)  Oh, the Harry Kilgore you are referring to clearly isn’t the Harry Kilgore I know.

In 7b), the is stressed because the speaker wants to emphasize the special (celebrity) status of the person mentioned; the Brad Pitt, in this case, has roughly the same meaning as the one and only Brad Pitt.

  • 7b)  I actually met THE Brad Pitt. You know, the movie star.

The is also used with plural proper names to indicate a particular family. In 7c), the speaker is most likely referring to a Mr. and Mrs. Smith (and perhaps their children). In 7d), the speaker is referring to the Medici family, or “clan.”

  • 7c)  You remember that we are having dinner with the Smiths on Friday, right?
  • 7d)  The Medicis held power for a long time.

The indefinite article, a/an, can appear before singular count nouns, as in 8), but not normally before noncount nouns, as 9) shows (although there exceptions). In many languages, the distinction between English count and noncount nouns isn’t paralleled, at least not precisely; thus, English learners often make errors such as in 9) and 10) with abstract noncount nouns.

  • 8)  She has a brother who lives in Seattle. → singular count noun
  • 9)  He gave me a water to quench my thirst. → noncount noun
  • 10)  Rachel gave me an information about it. → noncount noun

The indefinite article a often precede partitives, as shown in 11). Partitives are used to measure the quantity of noncount nouns. (See PartitivesOpens in new window)

ArticlePartitiveNoncount Noun
11a)   aslice of pizza
11b)   apiece of cake
11c)   a loaf of bread
11d)   a bowl of oatmeal

With some noncount nouns, such as coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, the partitive is sometimes omitted in everyday speech. It is therefore possible to hear both 12a) and 12b).

  • 12a)  Would you like to go somewhere and have a cup of coffee?
  • 12b)  Would you like to go somewhere and have a coffee?

With these and other noncount nouns, the partitive can also be omitted when the speaker wishes to indicate the idea “a type of.” Thus, for example, 13a) means a particular type of cheese and 13b) means a particular type of tea.

  • 13a)  After dinner, he offered us a cheese from southern Italy.
  • 13b)  She served a tea that she had found in a gourmet tea shop in Chicago.

Unstressed some can be considered as the plural form of the indefinite article a/an when it appears before count nouns. Thus, some in sentences like 14) indicates an indefinite quantity of at least two.

  • 14)  There were some books in the box. → plural count noun

Unstressed some also functions as an indefinite article before noncount nouns, as shown in 15). Here it is interpreted as “a certain/indefinite amount” of something.

  • 15)  Tom provided some information about it. → noncount noun

Some can also appear in front of singular count nouns to designate a particular person or thing whose identify is not determinable or important. Thus, 16a) with some means virtually the same thing as 16b) with the indefinite article a.

  • 16a)  Some guy came by and left this package for you.
  • 16b)  A guy came by and left this package for you.

The example with some … or other in 16c) also has roughly the same meaning. While such uses of some are common in conversational English, it is important to note that sentences like 16a) and 16c) can carry a flippant or slightly disparaging tone.

  • 16c)  Some student or other is waiting to see you.

In addition to the functions shown in 16), the basic meaning of some (“an unspecified amount”) takes on an extra added value in certain contexts. In these other contexts, however, some is not functioning as an article, but as another type of pronominal modifier.

In 17a) and 17b), some time is interpreted as “a considerable amount of time.”

  • 17a)  We talked about it for some time.
  • 17b)  It was some time before I saw her again.

In 17c), some defines a quantity that is relative to a larger set or group — some people left, but not all or most of the audience.

  • 17c)  Some of the audience members left after the intermission, but quite a few stayed for the last act.
  • 17d)  Boy, that was SOME party! I’ve never had such a great time.

And when some has contrastive stress, as in a sentence such as 17d), it indicates a strong emotional response (which can be favorable or unfavorable) to something exceptional that the speaker has experienced.

Important Hint!  

In English, there are instances in which count and noncount nouns have no preceding article— where neither definite nor indefinite article is used. Grammarians have referred to such instances as Zero Article. See Zero ArticleOpens in new window