The Use of Articles

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By Chris Leslie

Nouns in English frequently require the use of an article, either definite or indefinite. The indefinite article, a or an, suggests that the thing named is not familiar to both the writer and the reader. After the thing has been named, the definite article, the, is used:

A robot was created by the team. The robot met the

specified requirements.


Certain nouns are assumed to be familiar even if they have not been mentioned before. These include proper nouns that name a unique person, place or thing:

The TA provided the team with a RoboLAB kit.

The sun was thought to be the center of the universe.

and nouns that are superlative (the best design or the last lab report).

Usually the problem with articles is not in choosing the right one, but that the writer has omitted one that is necessary.

    Every singular noun must have either a/an or the in front of it:

  1. A boiled egg was monitored. – indefinite; could be any egg.
  2. The precision of the robot was improved. – a definite quality of a specific robot.
  3. The engineer is a good writer. – a specific person; "that" engineer.
  4. I have to go to the store after dinner. – a specific place.
  5. Definite, countable plural nouns always use the:

  6. The boiled eggs were monitored. – several specific boiled eggs.
  7. The precisions of the robot were improved. – precision is not countable.
  8. The engineers are good writers. – a particular, countable group of engineers.
  9. The colleges were surveyed. – a specific group of colleges.
  10. Do not use an article with indefinite plural or uncountable nouns. This is usually done to describe a general principle:

  11. Precision is the repeatability of a result. – precision is a general concept.
  12. Engineers can write well. – as opposed to dentists.
  13. I will go to graduate school after college. – not a specific school but the general idea.
  14. A general principle can also be expressed with a singular countable noun and an indefinite article. However, this does not work with a singular uncountable noun:

  15. An engineer can write well. – a singular noun as an abstract concept.
  16. A precision is the repeatability of a result. – precision is uncountable.

The following table summarizes the general principles outlined above, although it does not take into account several important exceptions. A further difficulty is the fact that some nouns are both countable and uncountable depending on the context (such as wire). Nevertheless, please observe the general principles shown:

 No articleA/an The
Proper noun
  • Singular (New York City)
  • Plural (the United States of America)
Common noun
  • Indefinite, uncountable (precision, college)
  • Indefinite, countable plural (engineers)
  • Indefinite, countable singular (an engineer)
  • Definite (the precision, the college, the engineer)

The rule for choosing a or an is simple to state but not obvious in application. A is used with nouns that begin with a consonant sound: a robot, a house. An is used with nouns that begin with a vowel sound: an electrode, an uncle. The determining factor is not how the noun is spelled but how it sounds. Usually the grammar checker in the word-processing software will point out the right one, but it might not seem right:

a university, a uranium isotope, a UFO – the semi-vowel yu has a consonant sound.

a European – also the semi-vowel yu but spelled differently.

an FBI contract – when spelled out it is a consonant – federal – but some letters have a vowel sound in acronyms: eff-bee-eye.

an hour, an honor – starts with a consonant but has a vowel sound.


Supply articles based on the context. Sometimes the correct article is none at all.

  1. ____ lab report might use ____ illustration to explain ____ experiment to ____ readers.
  2. ____ illustration can be used in any section of ____ report.
  3. But ____ students must remember that ____ pictures do not speak for themselves.
  4. Therefore, no matter where it is used, ____ illustration must be described in ____ words.
  5. ____ good report will describe ____ most important features of ____ illustration.

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