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English Grammar

What to use - a/an or the?

The indefinite article a/an is used to talk about one particular person or thing when the listener does not know which one is meant.

  • I saw a child in the toy store.
  • She married an old man.
  • A girl answered the phone.

The definite article is used when the listener knows which particular person or thing is meant.

  • The child was crying. (You know which child - the one I met in the toy store.)
  • I went to the doctor yesterday.
  • The girl who answered the phone was polite. (You know which girl - the one who answered the phone.)

The first time you speak of something/somebody use a/an, the next time you repeat the same noun use the.

To talk about things in general, we normally use a singular countable noun with a/an.

  • A spider has eight legs.
  • An apple is red.

Note that we can also use a plural noun with no article to make a general statement.

  • Children need love.
  • Spiders have eight legs.
  • Teachers must have patience.
  • Apples are red.
  • Computers are expensive.

Sometimes we use a singular noun with the to make general statements. This is particularly common before the names of instruments and inventions.

  • Who invented the computer?
  • I would like to learn the violin.

Sections In This Article
Introduction to Articles
The Definite Article
Cases where the definite article should not be used
The Indefinite Article
Cases where articles should not be used
What to use - A/an or the
The difference between some/any and no article
Common expressions without articles
Articles: special rules and exceptions


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