A/An vs The – Articles

Three little words — “a”, “an” and “the” — give many students a headache. These words are called articles and come before nouns or noun phrases. Students often forget to use them or choose the wrong one. Let’s see if we can clear up the confusion.

A and  an really mean the same thing and are used in the exact same way.

  • Both are used in front of singular nouns / noun phrases (a girl, an elevator).
  • is used in front of words that begin with a consonant sound. (a cat, a big elephant)
  • An is used in front of words that begin with a vowel sound. (an orange cat, an elephant)
  • A and  an are used when you are talking about one item of a particular noun and it’s not important which one it is. They are called indefinite articles.

The is used in front of singular and plural nouns and is a definite article.  It is used when you are talking about one specific item. The reader or listener should not be confused about which item you are talking about.

Often you use an indefinite article “a/an” the first time you talk about an item. If you continue talking about the same item (second time), you switch articles and use the definite article “the.”

Photo by Martha

Photo by MarthaI

In this picture there are three oranges.

  • Maybe you want one to eat and you don’t care which one so you say “Please give me an orange.” You can get any of the oranges (A, B, or C). .
  • If you eat Orange C, you can say, The orange is  sweet.” We know you are talking about a specific orange. If you say An orange is sweet” we don’t know which orange you’re talking about.
  • If you want a specific orange, you use the definite article “the.” You say, “Please give me the orange in the middle.” 
Photo by Martha

Photo by Martha

In this picture, if you say “I need a pen,” you can get either A, B, or C.  If you say “I need a red pen,” you will get pen C.

If you say, “I need the black pen,” we don’t know which pen you want. Do you want A or B? If you say, “I need a black pen,” we know that you don’t care if you get A or B.

This video gives you more information on how to use the articles and how to pronounce them. Enjoy!

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