Definite Article and Indefinite Article

a/an, the

The determiners a/an and the are called "articles". They are the most common of all determiners. They come at the very beginning of a noun phrase. We divide them into "indefinite" and "definite" like this:

  a/an the
use with singular countable nouns only all nouns
use for a non-specific person or thing (singular) specific people or things (singular or plural)

We use indefinite to mean non-specific. Indefinite is general. We use definite to mean specific. Definite is particular. When we are talking about something in general, we use a or an. When we are talking about something in particular, we use the.

Think of the sky at night. In the sky we see MILLIONS of stars and ONE moon. So normally we would say:

  • I saw a star last night.
  • I saw the moon last night.

Look at some more examples:

a/an the
I was born in a town.

John had an omelette for lunch.

James Bond ordered a drink.

We want to buy an umbrella.

Have you got a pen?
The capital of France is Paris.

I have found the book that I lost.

Have you cleaned the car?

There are six eggs in the fridge.

Please switch off the TV when you finish.
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Of course, often we can use a/an or the for the same word. It depends on the situation, not the word. Look at these examples:

  • We want to buy an umbrella. (Any umbrella, not a particular umbrella.)
  • It's raining! Where is the umbrella? (We already have an umbrella. We are looking for our umbrella, a particular umbrella.)
This little story should help you understand the difference between a/an and the:

A man and a woman were walking in Oxford Street. The woman saw a dress that she liked in a shop. She asked the man if he could buy the dress for her. He said: "Do you think the shop will accept a cheque? I don't have a credit card."

Articles with Countable and Uncountable Nouns

Notice that we use the indefinite article a/an ONLY with singular countable nouns: a dog, an egg, a very big man, an extremely delicious meal

By contrast, we can use the definite article the with ALL nouns: the dog, the eggs, the big men, the music, the food, the red wine

It is sometimes also possible to have no article at all—the so-called ZERO article. This can happen with all nouns (but normally not singular countable nouns): dogs, eggs, hot meals, music, red wine

The following table shows how we usually use articles with countable and uncountable nouns, but see EnglishClub Tip below for more about this.

  a/an the ZERO
countable singular a dog the dog dog
plural a dogs the dogs dogs
uncountable a music the music music
In English, a singular countable noun usually needs an article (or other determiner) in front of it. We cannot say:
  • I saw elephant yesterday.

We need to say something like:

  • I saw an elephant.
  • I saw a pink elephant.
  • I saw the elephant.
  • I saw your elephant.

But see ZERO Article for cases when no article or other determiner is needed.