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:
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.