LEOLEO: Literacy Education Online

The Use and Nonuse of Articles

The articles a (or an) and the are signals for four distinctions:

  1. countable vs. noncountable

  2. definite vs. indefinite

  3. first vs. subsequent mention

  4. general vs. specific


Thus, specifying phrases occur freely with the, but only in certain contexts with a. The exception is when a noun is mentioned the first time. (See newness.)

a dog
ie: any dog
the dog
ie: the one in the corner
a book
ie: any book
the book
ie: the one that I'm reading

Note: The is also used when what its noun refers to is unique.

The White House

The theory of relativity

The 1996 federal budget


An award ceremony at the Metrodome would not normally have attracted so much attention. Nonetheless, when it was leaked that Clinton would be presenting medals to three athletes, interest in the ceremony intensified.


Both a/n and the can indicate that the countable noun is referring to the whole class. This use of articles is called generic, from the Latin word meaning "class."

A snake may be a sign of the poisoning society performs upon our values. every snake
The snake is representative of strength, power, ferocity, and cunning. snakes as a whole class

The difference between the indefinite a/n and the generic the is that the former denotes any one member of a class while the latter denotes all the members.

To single out one particular member, the must be used:

The panda brought to the New York Zoo is a unique example of his species.

Note: A generic (or general) meaning can also be expressed by omitting the article.

Plural Count Noun Tigers are fearful animals. all tigers
Noncount Noun Anger is a destructive emotion. all sorts of angers

Omission of Articles

While some nouns combine with one article or the other because they are countable or noncountable, other nouns simply never take either article:

© 1997, 1998, 1999 The Write Place

LEO: Literacy Education Online

This handout was originally written by Mark Le Tourneau at Purdue University. It was revised and then redesigned for the Web by Maggie Escalas for the Write Place, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota, and may be copied for educational purposes only. If you copy this document, please include our copyright notice and the name of the writer; if you revise it, please add your name to the list of writers.

Last Update: 5 October 1999

URL: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/grammar/useartic.html