Articles and Nouns


By Stephen Aldersley, Ed. D.
Department of English
National Technical Institute of the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

The article system in English is used to specify the meaning, in one way or another, of nouns. The most basic elements of this system include a (or an, when the following word begins with a vowel sound), the, and Ø (null or no article). In addition to these three articles, other words called "determiners" are also used to specify the meaning of nouns. Examples of determiners are: "quantifiers" (like some, any, three), "possessives" (like my, his, their) and "demonstratives" (like this, that, these). This module focuses on the three articles only and does not review the use of other kinds of determiners.

Many students learning English, including deaf and hard-of-hearing students, experience some difficulty learning the system of articles. The system is quite complex. A variety of factors influence correct article usage, and the rules that govern that usage at a general level are not easy to get across. In addition, the choice of one article over another, while natural to the native speaker of English, is often quite subtle and not easily amenable to discussion in terms of general rules. Nevertheless, there are rules that can be taught and learned, and the student who likes to learn language using a consciously analytical approach can benefit from study of those rules.

This module provides an overview of English articles and the factors that impinge on their use, including the distinction between "count" and "non-count" (mass) nouns and the distinction between singular and plural nouns. Two other factors are then reviewed: (a) the distinction between nouns used to refer to something specific as opposed to something general, and (b) the distinction, where the noun refers to something specific, between whether the reader knows what specific instance is being referred to, as opposed to where the reader does not know. This module goes on to offer guided practice in a variety of formats aimed to help the site visitor (and the student) review the basic rule system governing the use of English articles. Finally, it provides action steps for teachers that address the challenge that the English article system poses for deaf students.


  • Language structures have specific properties that make them inherently more or less difficult for language learners.
  • Without full access to the sounds and intonations of spoken languages, many deaf persons do not perceive certain English language structures in the same ways that hearing persons do.
  • The English article system is an essential component of English grammatical and rhetorical structure.
  • The ability to use the English article system is an indispensable requisite for success in writing English.
  • The ability to comprehend the English article system is an indispensable requisite for success in reading English (failure to understand the role of articles can result in a serious misinterpretation of information).
  • The comprehension and appropriate application of the English article system pose a significant challenge for many deaf students.
  • There are certain typical article errors that often appear in the writing of deaf students.
  • Course materials can be structured to enhance students' comprehension of the English article system.

Grammatical Summary

Most students of language learn quickly what a "noun" is. One common definition is that a noun is "a word used to denote a thing, a person, a place or an abstract idea."

book (thing)

accountant (person)

classroom (place)

knowledge (abstraction)

Similarly, most students of language also learn that, when one wants to add information about a noun, one can use an "adjective" (interesting) or a noun functioning as an adjective (company).

interesting book

company accountant

English classroom

perfect knowledge

Adjectives (or modifying nouns) are, however, not the only kind of words used to add information about a noun. English, like many other languages, also makes use of a system of "articles." This system has four components. These are: a, an, the, and something called "null article," which in grammar books is usually written as Ø.

a book

an accountant

the classroom

Ø knowledge

The article an has the same meaning and use pattern as a; it is used in place of a when the following word begins with a vowel sound:

an accountant

an everyday task

an NTID student (the N of NTID begins with the sound "eh")

Articles allow a writer to communicate more clearly basic information about each noun. For example, each of the following pairs of examples below has a slightly different meaning.

a book

the book

Ø books

the books

Types of Nouns

In order to understand the article system in English, one has to first know something about English nouns. Nouns can be divided into different categories. The two most important categories for the purposes of this module are:

1. Count versus Non-Count (or Mass) Nouns

2. Singular versus Plural Nouns

Two additional factors crucially affecting article use will also be explained:

3. Specific versus General Nouns

4. Known versus Unknown Nouns

Count and Non-Count

Nouns are either "count" or "non-count." A count noun represents something that can be counted:

A psychologist gave Joe a test.

Two psychologists gave Joe three tests.

A non-count noun, on the other hand, represents something that cannot be counted. In the following two sentences,knowledge, soccer, water, oxygen, and hydrogen represent things that cannot be counted.

Ø Knowledge about Ø soccer is growing.

Ø Water is made from Ø oxygen and Ø hydrogen.

Sometimes, a non-count noun is referred to as a "mass" noun. The term "mass" means something taken as a whole or something that is not divided into parts.

Identifying Non-Count Nouns

Unfortunately, it is not always possible to predict whether a noun is count or non-count. A dictionary will usually be helpful. But there are some categories of nouns that are often non-count. The three most general of these categories are illustrated below.

Abstractions: courage, nonsense, independence, evidence, advice, progress, information, employment

Everyday things: stuff, jewelry, clothing, traffic, furniture, money, equipment

Things to eat: butter, milk, beer, toast, salt

Some more specific non-count categories are the following.

Weather-related phenomena: sunshine, thunder, snow

Sports: football, racing, chess, golf

Substances: oxygen, sodium, ice

Fields of study: math, grammar, English, history

Expressions of Quantity with Non-Count Nouns

Often one wants to talk about some quantity of a non-count noun. English does this through the use of a phrase that has four components appearing in the order shown:

1. a word expressing the quantity

2. a count noun

3. the preposition of

4. the non-count noun

I ate one (1) piece (2) of (3) toast (4) for breakfast.

I hate several (1) pieces (2) of (3) toast (4) for breakfast.

Nouns That Do Double Duty

Some nouns that are non-count in some contexts can be legitimately used as count nouns in other contexts.

I'd like a glass of water (non-count) please.

God spoke and the waters (count) came together.

Most of us have long since learned to put up with snow (non-count).

The snows (count) generally come to this area in November.

Sugar (non-count) is sweet.

Chemically, sugars (count) are labeled with the suffix "-ose."

It is important to note that the number of non-count nouns which can be used also as count nouns, as in the above examples, is not fixed. As language evolves to cover experience, nouns that were once solely non-count can begin to be used also as count nouns:

Can you give me another couple of milks please. (= cartons of milk)

He's had too many beers, if you ask me. (= glasses of beer)

Singular and Plural

Singular means one. Plural means more than one. Non-count nouns can, by definition, not be counted. Therefore, they can be neither singular nor plural. Only count nouns can be singular or plural.

For example, consider the count noun course. It can be singular as in:

My roommate has taken a physics course.

Or it can be plural as in:

My roommate has taken several physics courses.

Unusual Plurals

In most cases, in order to change a singular count noun into a plural count noun, English adds an the ending -s. Some nouns, however, add -es, including nouns that end in -ch (church/churches), -sh (dish/dishes), -ss (princess/princesses), and -x (fax/faxes). Other nouns that end in a consonant followed by -y, change to -ies in the plural (poppy/poppies).

However, there are many exceptions that must be learned individually with the help of a dictionary. For example, some nouns don't change spelling in the plural (sheep/sheep) or change in dissimilar ways (man/men).

The two factors discussed above, count versus non-count and singular versus plural, have a big impact on the English article system. Before we take a closer look at that impact, however, we have to consider two additional factors.

Specific and General

Nouns of any kind (count or non-count, singular or plural) may be "specific" or "general."

A noun is specific when the writer wishes to talk about some thing or things in particular.

A noun is general when the writer wishes to make a generalization about some thing or things.

Here are some examples that contrast specific nouns with general nouns. The highlighted nouns in the first three examples are specific, whereas the highlighted nouns in the second three examples are general.

My dad's company made a profit this year.
(profit = count, singular, and specific)

It hopes to make bigger profits next year.
(profits = count, plural, and specific)

They will invest the money in new machinery.
(money = non-count and specific)

Companies always try to make a profit.
(profit = count, singular, and general)

Without profits, companies would go bankrupt.
(profits = count, plural, and general)

Money is necessary to live.
(money = non-count and general)

Note that the equivalent nouns in the examples above are identical in form despite their different usage as specific or general. That is, in the first and the fourth examples, the highlighted noun is profit. In the first example, profit is specific because it refers to the particular profit that the company made this year. In the fourth example, profit is general because it does not refer to any particular profit; instead, it refers to a profit as a generalization, in this case, the goal of companies.

Known and Unknown

When writers use a noun to talk about something specific, they know what they are referring to. But they must consider whether the reader will also know. We saw above that a writer can use any noun (count or non-count, singular or plural) to refer to something specific. Sometimes the reader knows what the writer is referring to. Sometimes the reader does not know.

Specific and Known Versus Specific and Unknown

Here are some examples that contrast nouns that are specific and known (to the reader) with nouns that are specific but unknown (to the reader):

The Great Lakes contain fresh water, not salt water.

(Lakes = count, specific, and known)

We camped by some beautiful lakes last summer.

(lakes = count, specific, and unknown)

The equipment in the Photo Lab is all new.

(equipment = non-count, specific, and known)

We got some new equipment in yesterday.

(equipment = non-count, specific, and unknown)

Ensuring That A Specific Noun Is "Known"

There are several different ways that writers can be confident that readers will know what they are talking about or, in other words, that a specific noun can be "known."

FIRST, writers may be talking about something that is unique. Compare, for example, the following two sentences. In the first sentence, the house referred to is a unique white house, specifically the residence of the President of the United States. It is unique and known to readers, unlike the unknown white house referred to in the second sentence.

The White House stands on Pennsylvania Avenue.

I live in a white house.

SECOND, writers may rely on a readers' common sense or general knowledge to know exactly what they are talking about. Compare, for example, the following two sentences:

The college bookstore closes at 9:00 P.M.

I bought this book at a downtown bookstore a few days ago.

THIRD, writers can assume that readers will know exactly what they are talking about if they have already mentioned it:

I got a new car and a new bike last week. My wife doesn't like the car very much.

FOURTH, writers can add identifying information immediately after a noun so that readers will know what they are talking about. Compare, for example, the following three sentences:

The green house on Main Street belongs to my friend.

The green house where I grew up has been demolished.

Marcia lives in a green house.

The houses referred to in the first two sentences are made known to readers through the use of the identifying information, on Main Street and where I grew up. The house mentioned in the third sentence is not specifically known to readers because there is no identifying information provided.

We have now looked at each of the four main factors that influence the choice of articles in English. The correct choice of article depends on consideration of all four factors!

  • count versus non-count
  • singular versus plural
  • specific versus general
  • specific and known versus specific but unknown

The following chart sets out the general rules that cover article usage in English:

Two tree diagrams of articles, 1) count type specific and general, 2) non-count type specific and general

Use of the Article the

Use the when you are talking about something specific and you are confident that the reader will know what you are talking about. The article the is used with both count (singular or plural) and non-count nouns.

The assignment on page 4 is due Monday.

(assignment = count, singular, specific, and known)

I read the e-mails you sent me yesterday.

(e-mails = count, plural, specific, and known)

It snowed yesterday. The snow was light and fluffy.

(snow = non-count, specific, and known)

In all of the above examples, use of the article the signals that the writer expects the reader to know which assignment, which e-mails, and which snow he or she is writing about.

Use of the Article a (an)

Use a (an) to mean "one"--where many are possible. The article a (an) is used only with count, singular nouns. The noun may be specific or general, but if it is specific, the reader should not know which one you are talking about.

My dad runs a company in Rochester.

(company = count, singular, and specific)

A company usually has to pay taxes to the government.

(company = count, singular, and general)

In the first example, a company refers to a specific company, namely, the particular company that my dad runs. However, the writer does not expect the reader to know which company this is. In the second example, a company refers in general to any company at all, not to one specific company.

Use of the Article Ø

Ø, that is, no article at all, is used to mean "all" or "some." Ø is used only with count, plural nouns and non-count nouns. The noun may be specific or general but, if it is specific, the reader should not know exactly what you are talking about.

My daughter got Ø good grades this semester.

(grades = count, plural, and specific)

Some instructors never give Ø high grades.

(grades = count, plural, and general)

We added Ø sodium to chlorine in the laboratory today.

(sodium = non-count and specific)

Ø Sodium should be avoided by people with high blood pressure.

(sodium = non-count and general)

In the first two examples, grades is a count, plural noun. In the first example, grades refers to the specific good grades that my daughter got; in the second example, grades refers, in general, to any high grades that some instructors might or might not give.

In the third and fourth examples, sodium is a non-count noun. In the third example, sodium refers to the particular sodium that we added to chlorine in the laboratory today; in the fourth example, sodium refers to any and all sodium that certain people should avoid.

Action Steps

  1. As indicated elsewhere in this module, the English article system is complex. Many instructors in content areas might not know how to explain the details and rules of the system. Therefore, it is recommended that, before talking to students about their use of articles, instructors take some time to familiarize themselves with the elements of the system discussed in this module. It is also important to acknowledge that, on occasion, article usage may not follow the system's general rules.
  2. Since correct article usage impinges on student comprehension of texts, as well as the clarity of their own writing, this area of English grammar is an important one to pay attention to. It seems to be a particularly difficult area for deaf students to become proficient in. Like any difficult structure, the more practice students have in identifying and correctly using articles, the more likely they will gain in proficiency.
  3. In general, it is recommended that instructors draw students' attention to article usage and comment on it when responding to student writing.
  4. It is a natural language-learning strategy to try to develop one's own grammar rules. Often these self-generated rules are not correct. In the case of articles, for example, sometimes deaf students will report that they believe that the always means plural. Where it is apparent that a student has derived an incorrect rule, an instructor may simply want to bring the student's attention to it or, alternatively, attempt to re-teach the rule.
  5. While, as a whole, the English article system is complex, at least one element of the system is straightforward, and that is that the article a is never used with plural nouns. Since students often confuse the singular and plural forms of nouns anyway (in addition to making article errors), when instructors comment on incorrect noun usage in students' written work, it is recommended that they also take the opportunity to highlight correct article usage.
  6. The importance of the correct use of the lies in the requirement for effective communication that the writer (or speaker) intuit the knowledge of the reader (listener). The need to consider one's audience, of course, goes far beyond the mere use or misuse of articles, and any commentary on student writing is likely to include reference to audience awareness. Discussion of the student's correct or incorrect use of the and the other articles can be used to introduce or highlight this important aspect of writing.
  7. One simple exercise for instructors to adapt is to take a paragraph from a textbook that students are assigned to read anyway, delete the articles, and ask students to reinsert the correct ones. A caution here is that there are often exceptions, or instances which appear not to follow the rule. Therefore, it is recommended that only those articles that clearly follow the general rules be deleted.