‘The’, ‘a’ and ‘an’ are, respectively, the first, sixth and thirty-second most common words in the English language. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, they’re also some of the most frequently misused, especially among non-native English speakers.
But these words are articles, used to specify what we’re referring to in speech or writing, making them essential for constructing grammatical sentences. As such, it’s essential to know the difference between the definite and indefinite articles and when each should be used.
The Definite Article (‘The’)
‘The’ is the definite article in English and used when referring to something specific: ‘the tallest tree’, for instance, refers to a specific tree, not just any tree. ‘The’ is therefore used when:
- Referring to something singular (e.g. ‘the Pope’, ‘the Eiffel tower’)
- Using a superlative (e.g. ‘the tallest tree’, ‘the saddest clown’)
In both cases, ‘the’ is used because there can only be one of the thing in question.We also use ‘the’ if we assume the reader or listener is already familiar with the particular thing being discussed. If I ask a sick friend whether they’ve been to ‘the hospital’, for instance, using ‘the’ implies that I have a specific hospital in mind (probably the nearest one).
The other main circumstance in which ‘the’ applies is when referring to the complete set of something using a singular noun. For example, instead of saying:
Sharks are dangerous animals.
We could use ‘the shark’ to mean all animals to which the term ‘shark’ applies:
The shark is a dangerous animal.
Here, ‘the shark’ refers to the generic idea of a shark, not a specific shark. Unless there’s a shark in the room when someone says this to you. In which case, you might want to leave the room.
The Indefinite Articles (‘A’ and ‘An’)
Indefinite articles are used when referring to something generic or non-specific. The phrase ‘a tall tree’, for example, could apply to any tall tree, rather than one tree in particular.
However, the indefinite article can apply to something specific if we’re uncertain about the identity of the thing being discussed. In the following:
A shark bit me today.
The phrase ‘a shark’ does refer to a specific shark (the one that bit me), but using ‘a’ shows that it could be one of many sharks, not a specific shark with which we’re already familiar.
‘A’ or ‘An’?
The indefinite article comes in two forms: ‘a’ and ‘an’. The version to use depends on the word that follows. Generally, ‘a’ precedes words that start with a hard sound (usually a consonant) and ‘an’ precedes words that start with a soft sound (usually a vowel):
As you can see, there are words that start with a soft ‘h’ that require using ‘an’. Some words also start with a vowel but require using ‘a’ (e.g. ‘a European country’). Make sure you know when these exceptions apply so you don’t use the wrong article in your work.