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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.