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Articles: A, An, The

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Hi there!

During this lesson we're going to look at how and when to use the indefinite article A or An, and the definite article The.

There's often a lot of confusion about articles.
To article or not to article...that is a question! Or was it...that is the question!

In general you use the indefinite articles a and an when speaking for the first time about a single person or object, or when speaking about a person or object which isn't specific, but which is the same or similar to other categories of people or objects.
The word an is used whenever it's followed by a word which begins with a vowel, for example: an elephant.

You normally use the definite article the when speaking about people or objects in the 3 following cases:

1. A person or object you've spoken about previously, even just a second ago.

2. A specific person or object which is different than other categories of objects or people.

3. A person or object which is famous, or a category of people or objects which are known by both the person speaking, and the person listening.

When speaking about geographical areas or seasons, then you need to use the definite article the.
Please note that when you use an adjective such as this or next, then you do not use the definite article the.

Here are some examples:

I'm going to the countryside in the Summer.

She's going to the mountains this Winter.

We're going to the lakes next Autumn.

They're going to the seaside in 2 weeks time.

In some cases you don't use any articles at all, and when referring to countable objects, you normally use plurals when speaking about matters of fact in general.
You can also add words such as some or any when speaking about a certain number or quantity of people or objects.

So you don't use any articles when speaking about matters of fact which include categories of people or objects which are similar to each other;

Here are some examples:

I like when people are polite
People in Malawi smile a lot
He dances with wolves
We often eat bananas
Have they ever had photography lessons?

Once again you don't use any articles when speaking about yourself or other people who do an action which is linked to one of the following places: school, college, university, or work. In this case, these words are used as categories rather than physical places, so you don't add any articles.

Once again, here are some examples:

I go to university every day
She is off work today because she's ill
Have we got any lectures at college today?
Do they ever go on school trips?
They haven't got any school holidays this month

But, just to confuse you, if you say something like: The Glasgow School of Art was designed by Rennie McIntosh, then in this case you need to use the definite article the because you're talking about a specific building rather than a category of art schools in general.

You don't use any articles when speaking about yourself or other people who do an action related to meals in general, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Here are some more examples:

I usually have breakfast at half past seven
She doesn't normally have much for lunch
When does he have his lunch break
We're going out for dinner tonight
They never have dinner before half past eight

Once again you don't use any articles when speaking about proper nouns including names of people or pets, company names or brands, countries, states, regions, counties, provinces, or an area of water or a mountain with a proper name.

Here are some more examples:

Scotland is famous for its whisky, and Japan is famous for its Sake

Millions of people live in Greater London

Wales is famous for its great singers

Mount Everest is about twenty nine thousand and twenty nine feet, or eight thousand, eight hundred and forty eight metres, tall

George Cloonie has a villa on Lake Como

So how do you know when to use indefinite or definite articles!

It's not easy, so let's look at some examples of how to use them.

Let's say that you ask me: Can you pass me a pen and a sheet of paper please?

This means that you need a pen plus a sheet of paper, and you're asking me, for the first time, if I can pass them to you.

You don't need a specific pen or sheet of paper, because the important thing is that you need to write something with any pen, on any sheet of paper, so in this case you need to use the indefinite article: a.

When I give you a pen, you could say: Oh thanks, that's perfect! The pen is blue.

Note that you now need to use the definite article the because of 3 reasons:

1. You said the word pen previously.
2. The pen has become a specific pen.
3. Both you and I now know about the pen.

Here's another example:

Let's imagine that I'm speaking with a friend and I say: I want to buy a new football.

This means that I want to buy a new football, but as I'm talking about any football in general, I need to use the indefinite article a.

Now let's imagine that I'm with the same friend looking at different footballs in a sports shop, and he says: Do you like the red and blue football.

Note that my friend uses the definite article the because he's talking about a specific football which is red and blue, as opposed any other footballs in the shop which are all different colours.

Here's a different example:

When I go on holiday to Paris, I'd like to see the Eiffel tower.

Note that no article is used before the city Paris because it's a proper noun, but the definite article the is used when talking about the Eiffel tower because you're talking about a tower which is both specific, and famous.

Now, let's look at some other examples:

If you say:
Scuse me, is there a toilet near here?
This means that you're asking someone if there's any toilet nearby, so you need to use the indefinite article: a.

But if you say:
Could you tell me where the bathroom is please
This means that you're probably in someone's house, and as you know that most people have a bathroom in their house, you need to use the definite article: the.

Here are some other examples:

I'm going to the lakes this weekend.
In this case you need to say the lakes because even though you haven't specified a single lake, you're referring to an area in which there are some lakes, and everyone knows what lakes are.

If you say:
I'm going to Lake Como this weekend.
In this case you don't use the definite article the because although you're talking about a specific lake which is also famous, the name: Como is a proper noun so no articles are used.

If, on the other hand, you say:
I'm going to an island on Lake Como this weekend.
In this case you use the indefinite article an because the word island begins with the vowel i, and also because you're talking about an island in general:

1. which you haven't mentioned before.
2. which isn't a specific island, as you haven't mentioned its name.
3. which isn't a famous island known by most people.

But if you say:
I'm going to the island on Lake Como, which is called Comacina island.
In this this case you need to use the definite article the before the word island which doesn't have a specific name, because in the same sentence you mention the name of the island afterwards, so it then becomes specific.
No articles are used with: Lake Como and Comacina island, because they're both proper nouns.

I know! It is quite confusing, but now that you have a rough idea of how to use articles, you can chat with some new friends on GoSpeakEnglish and ask them if they come from a hot country, if they have an exciting love life, or if they're from the planet Venus, or Mars!

And that's the end of this lesson!

Now you can see if you've understood the video, and do the test on GoSpeakEnglish. You can also watch many other English video lessons on GoSpeakEnglish.

Thanks, and I hope to see you again soon!
 

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