English grammar – Articles (A/The)
Articles in English grammar can be confusing.
To be right 99% of the time, start at the top and follow this diagram:
“Specific” means that both people know which noun.
“General” means that only one person, or neither person knows which noun.
Nouns are specific if:
- they are unique (e.g. the sun, the moon)
- they have a superlative (e.g. the biggest person, the tallest building)
- the sentence explains which noun (e.g. do you remember the girl we met last night?
- it is clear from context which noun, for example:
- “Can you close the door?” <— This means "the closest door"
- “I’m going to the library.” <— This means "the closest library"
- you are mentioning them for the second time (e.g. I have a dog and a cat. The dog‘s name is Barney and the cat’s name is Dish.
If a countable/uncountable noun is specific, use THE.
If a countable noun is not specific, use A.
If an uncountable noun is not specific, use NO ARTICLE.
Imagine two people are having a conversation about a cat.
If both people know which cat they are talking about, they say the cat. (a specific cat)
If only one person knows which cat they are talking about, they say a cat. (not a specific cat)
If neither of them knows which cat they are talking about, they say a cat. (not a specific cat)
Decide if we should say “A”, “The” or “No article” for each of these examples. If you’re not sure, click the picture – you’ll see a video which will explain the answer.
The answers are at the bottom of the page.
- The because “biggest” is a superlative. There is only one, so you know which octopus and I know which octopus.
- A because I know which restaurant, but you don’t.
- The because you know which water and I know which water (“from the teapot”) .
- The because you know which vodka and I know which vodka (“in this picture”).
- No article because we are talking in general. We’re not talking about specific milk.
Extra practice exercises
In each space, choose a or the.
A: Hey, I heard you got attacked by _______ tiger on holiday. Are you OK?
B: Yeh, I’m OK – I used my karate skills.
A: I bought ________ new cat at the weekend.
B: Oh really? What kind of cat?
A: Did you hear about the woman who wants to become ______ fattest person in the world?
B: Yeh, she’s crazy.
A: Did you bring ______ book I asked you about?
B: Sure, it’s right here.
A: Oh wow – what happened to your hair?
B: I went to _______ crazy hairdresser when I was on holiday in Portugal.
A: I went to ______ cool restaurant last night.
B: Oh yeh? Which one?
A: I didn’t sleep well last night because my cat brought ______ bird into ______ bed.
B: Sounds like a nice present.
A: She was _______ tallest person in her class at high school.
B: I guess she’s always been tall.
A: Last night I went to ________ restaurant, tripped over ________ table and fell into ________ group of businessmen.
B: Haha I wish I had seen that!
A: Do you remember when Michael went to ________ restaurant, tripped over ______ table and fell into _______ group of businessmen?
B: Haha of course – I’m so happy I saw it happen!
1 – a because the first person only heard about the tiger attack. They don’t know exactly which tiger.
2 – a because the second person doesn’t know which kind of cat.
3 – the because “fattest” is a superlative. Superlatives (biggest, fattest, smallest) mean there is only one, so both people know which person.
4 – the because both people know which book they are talking about
5 – a because the first person doesn’t know exactly which hairdresser.
6 – a because the second person asks which one.
7 – a, the because the second person doesn’t know which bird, but they can guess which bed (the first person’s bed)
8 – the because “tallest” is a superlative. Superlatives (biggest, fattest, smallest) mean there is only one, so both people know which person.
9 – a, a, a because the second person was not at the restaurant, so they don’t know which restaurant, which table or which group of businessmen.
10 – the, the, the because the second person was at the restaurant, so they know which restaurant, which table and which group of businessmen.
Check out my YouTube videos for more examples: