Practice for English Articles

book section abbreviated and in paraphrase


Correct production of articles can be a peculiarly frustrating problem. The articles perform comparatively little service in conveying meaning, yet add a great deal to the perception of correctness and the ease with which a piece of writing can be understood.

There is no simple set of rules for explaining the entire spectrum of article usage. Consequently, a program of self-guided practice is likely to prove more helpful than memorization and analysis. Observation and practice can consolidate what the student already knows or senses.

Keep in mind that English speakers do not always use articles correctly. The definite article is overused, even by highly literate native speakers. There are many situations where one has two or even three legitimate choices of article. It is sometimes permissible to play with the choice of article to achieve the best effect.




Our starting point is the observation that English has, in all, five article positions:

1) ‘the’ in singular (definite)
2) ‘the’ in plural (definite)
3) ‘a / an’ in singular (indefinite)
4) Ø in plural (indefinite)
5) Ø in singular (sometimes called conceptual)

You can count the article positions on the digits of one hand: they are therefore ‘within your grasp’.

See illustration.   



Try out some simple ideas describing oneself and others:

I am a nuclear physicist.
I am a lover of French impressionist painting.
I am one of the people you see every week in class.
They are students of geometry.
They are some of the well-known sports figures of Cuba.

(Note that these can be given with corresponding abbreviated forms – I’m, you’re, she’s, he’s, it’s, we’re, they’re.)



...absence of article with general quantifier – when a general quantifier (some, each, any, less, no, many, more, every, etc.) is used, there is usually no article. Please note that there are some clear and useful exceptions to this rule.

...absence of article with interrogative

Whose bed is this?
How much money do you have on you?

...absence of article with mass noun (unless specified)

Coffee keeps me awake.

...absence of article with possessive

Replaces article: This is my bed.
Accompanies concept: Its growth has been sensational.

...presence of definite article in implicit contextual reference

The ship set sail; it floated on the sea.

...presence of definite article with noun phrase that includes definition

The boiling point of water is 100º C.
The coffee you make always tastes good.

...replacement of definite article by demonstrative

This knife is sharper than that knife. (instead of something like “the long knife is sharper than the short knife”)

...replacement of demonstrative by possessive

Their car is faster than our car.



Take an existential concept like heat and examine the possibilities:

Heat is understood as something added.
Ice melts at a heat of 32º F.
The heat at which ice melts is 32º F.

Now do the same with a common quantifiable noun that can function as a concept.

The task was completed without error.
I have made an error.
The error that I made was to ignore some useful possibilities.

Another technique for constructive practice is to match general activities, which usually appear without article and belong as such to the Conceptual, with the persons (or things) that perform them, where the indefinite article is normally correct.

a carpenter / carpentry
a magician / magic
an instructor / instruction
a computer / computation
a sailor / sailing

You can extend this exercise to include specific activities and effects, which usually require an indefinite article.

an artist / art / a painting
an author / literature / a novel
a journalist / journalism / a news report
a teacher / education / a course
a builder / construction / a skyscraper
a doctor / medicine / a treatment



Search for more complex forms that can be learnt in conjunction with article usage. Here are some that are fairly clear.



The appositive construction enables writers to condense one idea and, as a consequence, expand another. The effect is usually one of ongoing description:

We eventually reached a village, a tiny collection of houses built at odd angles, but a welcome sight nevertheless.

Description is the hallmark of the appositive. The indefinite article therefore is standard.



The following is an example of what might occur naturally in speech:

A plane flew over just now, and it was flying too low. I thought it would crash.

In writing, a formal construction is necessary. Here the second part of a compound sentence can be drawn effortlessly into the first, yielding a main clause incorporating a restrictive relative clause:

The plane that flew over just now was flying too low, and I thought it would crash.

When the relative clause is not necessary to the definition of the noun, the form used is the non-restrictive clause. Here the decisions to be made about article choices are very clear. The indefinite article belongs alongside a non-restrictive clause, unless the noun is already the subject of discussion.

A plane, which flew over just now, was flying too low.



Relative clauses can be inserted into appositive structures. The definite article will be used when the appositive involves internal precision, the indefinite article when description is at work:

Abilene, the place where I grew up, …
New York, a city that never sleeps, …

This is the same principle as definite = the one and only, indefinite = one of several.




Here are some details of special situations that occur in writing.



There are many instances where a writer can switch from one article position to another. The most common is switching from indefinite singular to indefinite plural:

The primary responsibility of a policeman is to ensure the safety of the man in the street.
The primary responsibility of policemen is to ensure the safety of the man in the street.

Here ‘policemen’ shows greater indefiniteness or neutrality than ‘a policeman’. Often one can revise emphasis by switching from definite singular (referenced) to indefinite plural (unreferenced).

The primary responsibility of policemen is to ensure the safety of men in the street.

Switching is also desirable in avoiding phraseology rendered complicated by repetition of articles.



There are various forms for which an explanation of article usage would be highly complex. It is easiest just to accept them for what they are. Here are some examples:

This is too complex a problem to address at the present moment.
The better to prepare students for what will come, devote some time to articles.
Many a year passed before they saw each other again.



Some attention should also be given to article variation with vocabulary choice. The most informative case is the replacement of a noun by its corresponding gerund:

…the concept of a communicative test…
…the concept of communicative testing…
…measurement of thinking in politicians…
…measurement of the thought of politicians…

Observe whether the modifying phrase is placed as an attribute or as the direct object of the gerund.

…the testing of communicative skills…
…measuring politicians’ thought...




The conceptual does not have a single satisfactory definition because it serves many usages and variations. Here are some general ideas relating to observation and practice.



The conceptual is not necessarily a noun by itself. It can often be a modified noun.

Let us concentrate on rules that have practical and fundamental utility.

And because the noun here is described, it can be viewed as “one of many” as well as being a concept. We can therefore switch between conceptual and indefinite.

Let us concentrate on rules that have a practical and fundamental utility.

In other words – “utility, one of many possible kinds, and one that is practical and fundamental.” This example shows that indefinite is sometimes used to add definition in comparison to the conceptual.

There are even cases where playing with the language produces choices between conceptual, indefinite, definite, and demonstrative. Consider this example:

Acid rain, enemy of our forests, will descend on us this year.

Here are some alternatives, each of which carries a slightly different emphasis:

Acid rain, an enemy of our forests, will descend on us this year.
Acid rain, the enemy of our forests, will descend on us this year.
Acid rain, that enemy of our forests, will descend on us this year.

There is no correct choice here, unless it is the choice you are happiest with.



Mass and proper nouns can be considered exceptions to the basic grammar of articles, but Ø in singular clearly constitutes a genuine article position, in view of the frequent occurrence of conceptual nouns. Mass and proper nouns share in this position, and there is a need to consider these types in relation to each other.

Proper nouns never take articles, except when the article is part of the name, or when the proper noun functions as a generic term.

A Ford (car) will usually last longer than a Chevrolet (car).

Mass nouns can take articles when they are being specified, especially in statements of comparison.

He chose the coffee that was strongest.
He chose a coffee that was stronger than his usual choice.

Mass nouns may also be specified without using an article, especially if no direct comparison is involved.

I like coffee that is strong.

Conceptual nouns all present individual cases. Some are able to sound correct when specified with definite, indefinite or no article. Most are able to take the definite article when being specified, but others are unlikely to occur in this way. Sometimes conceptual nouns will occur with prepositon in order to avoid the use of article, especially if specification results in confusion or superfluous information.

Jack sought acceptance from his classmates.
Jack sought the acceptance of his classmates.

Here the first example sounds better, although the second example might be preferable in particular contexts.



Keep practicing, and eventually you will be able to avoid incorrect article usage and to chose among alternatives according to your needs and preferences.