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Definition of Articles

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