The Proper Use of Articles in English WritingAlyssa Colton, Ph.D. | 2016-11-21
One area of English grammar that many international researchers struggle with when they are writing papers is the proper use of articles.
What are articles in English grammar?
In English, articles are the little words that we put in front of nouns: “the,” “a,” or “an.”
While seemingly unimportant, proofreading your work with a view toward correcting errors in your use of “the” and “a" or "an” can make a difference in the clarity of your writing. In many cases, it gives the reader information, such as if it’s something that’s been previously introduced or if you are referring to something abstract or general or something identifiable and specific.
“The” is used before a noun that can be clearly identified by readers; it is called a definite article. “The” is also used before most plural proper nouns and some singular proper nouns.
The research focused on the conditions under which sepsis occurred most often.
The patterns could be easily discerned.
Take care when pouring out the liquid.
The Rockies in Colorado are a popular tourist destination.
“The” is used with singular proper nouns in the following categories:
Government bodies (the Congress, the Senate)
Historical periods (the Restoration, the Ming Dynasty)
Religious texts, entities, and leaders (the I Ching, the Methodist Church, the Pope)
Sometimes “the” is used with a geographical term, and sometimes it is not.
The following use “the”:
Landmarks (the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum)
Large bodies of water (the Atlantic, the Red Sea)
Points on the globe (the North Pole, the Equator)
Deserts, forests, gulfs, peninsulas, and mountain ranges (the Himalayas, the Sahara Desert)
Tip: If you are unsure if a proper noun takes “the,” try looking it up in a dictionary or usage guide. The Oxford Reference is a good place to try (oxfordreference.com). This will give you several examples of the term being used.
Do not use “the” with the following nouns:
Languages and nationalities (Korean, Arabic)
Subjects (math, reading, biology)
Sports (football, badminton)
Note that the definite article might be used in front of some of these words when they are used as a modifier for another noun, so be sure to determine whether the word is being used in this way, as in the following examples:
The Latin abbreviation
The math book
The badminton team
“A/an” is used when it comes before something nonspecific or it’s the first time you are using the term; therefore, it’s called an indefinite article. “A” is used before nouns that begin with consonants. “An” is used before nouns that begin with a vowel or a vowel sound. If there’s a modifier between the article and the noun, you choose “a” or “an” based on whatever words comes after it, because it all depends on sound.
For example, “an” would be used here:
But “a” would be used here:
a thorough examination
In some cases, to decide on whether to use “a” or “an,” you may need to determine the sound of the first letter. For example, if the “h” is silent, as in “hour,” the word begins with a vowel sound, and it would have “an” in front of it. However, “horse” would not because the “h” is pronounced. (Online dictionaries often provide auditory versions of words and/or phonetic spellings.) Other tricky letters to be aware of are “u” (which can sometimes have a “y” sound, as in "ukelele”) and “o” (which can sometimes make a “w” sound, as in “one”). Here are some examples:
A research study undertaken 40 years ago suggested that the drug could be used for pain relief.
A pattern could not be found.
An apple was left outside over the course of 20 days.
It is an odorless gas.
Note: When referring to the above nouns in subsequent sentences, you would then use the definite article “the” (the study, the pattern, the apple, the gas) because the nouns have now been identified. See the following example:
A major rainstorm moved in. The rain did a lot of damage.
Because the second sentence is referring to the rain mentioned in the first, “the” is used.
When Articles Are Not Used
Articles are not generally used before a “noncount” noun. Some examples of noncount nouns include sand, milk, and rain and abstractions like joy, anger, and obedience.
The dog was trained for strict obedience.
The medication was associated with bouts of anger.
Articles are also often not needed when the term is used to refer to something in general.
Milk cannot be used as a substitute for infant formula.
Milk is used in a general sense here; it does not refer to one particular cup, bottle, or jug of milk.
Compare the above example to:
The milk in the jug has gone bad.
This refers to specific, identifiable milk.
The same rules for the use of definite and indefinite articles apply to acronyms (phrases in abbreviation using the initial letter of each word).
The APA requires website addresses in bibliographies.
A GOES was used for this research.
(APA refers to the American Psychological Association. “The” is used because it is a proper, identifiable noun.)
(GOES refers to a Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite. “A” is used here because there are several of these and a specific one has not yet been identified.)
As an ESL author or even a native English author, correctly using definite and indefinite articles might be your biggest challenge when writing manuscripts, but once mastered, you will significantly boost the clarity of your writing and, in turn, boost your chances of being published and read. The rules given above will hopefully help you master those tricky articles!
1. Berry, Chris, and Allen Brizee. “Articles: A versus An,” Purdue OWL. 27 July 2011.
owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/591/01. Accessed 2 November 2016.
2. Bullock, Richard, et al. The Little Seagull Handbook, 2nd ed. With exercises.
W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.
3. Lynch, Paul, et al. “Using Articles,” Purdue OWL. 3 March 2011.
owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/540/01. Accessed 2 November 2016.
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About the Author:
Dr. Alyssa Colton has a Ph.D. in English from the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY). She has taught and worked with students of all levels and backgrounds on writing skills for 20 years. She is a freelance writer and editor specializing in science, health, productivity and career development.
Topics : Grammar