THE or A/An or Nothing? It Just Makes You Want to Scream!

When do you use the word “the”? When do you use the word “a” or ”an”? When is it not correct to use any article? This is a problem for many English learners all over the world, and especially for those whose native language does not have any articles, like Chinese, Korean, or Russian.

English may seem like it is fickle. What do I mean by that? I mean that sometimes it looks like there is no reason for things to be the way they are – not predictable, not according to any rule that you can easily see. So, are these things that you just have to hear, absorb and try to imitate? Or are there some guiding principles?

Countable”. You may have heard of this word before. It means that you are talking about something that can be counted. For example, we can say “three eggs”, but we can’t say *“three waters”, because we can’t count ‘water’. But hey! Maybe you’ve heard someone say to the waiter in a restaurant “Bring three waters, please.” What they really mean is “Bring three GLASSES of water.” It is the noun “glass” that is countable, not the word “water”!

Getting more complicated, right? Well, how about this? If it is a unit of measure or time, which is considered countable (“three hours”, “four gallons”, etc.), we generally use “a” or “an”, and not “the”. For example, we say “My car needs a gallon of gas.”, and not *“My car needs the gallon of gas.” On the other hand, body parts, which are also countable, usually take “the”. Take a look at this example – we say “A bee stung her on the arm.”, and not *“A bee stung her on an arm.”

Want more? When we want to say something is the ‘best’ or the ‘first’, we generally use “the” and not “a” – “She was the best singer”, not *“She was a best singer”, or “He was the first astronaut.”, and not *“He was a first astronaut.”

Sometimes there should be NO article in English. This is the case for non-countable nouns, like the word “knowledge.” For example, we say “Knowledge is power.”, and not *“The knowledge is power.”, or *“A knowledge is power.” But as I said before, English seems fickle. It is perfectly OK to say, “He has a good knowledge of English.” Don’t you just want to scream?

And remember that we said units of measure or time usually take “a” or “an”. Well, not always. If they are in a ‘by phrase’, use “the” – “He was paid by the hour.” (not *“He was paid by an hour.”), or “Milk is sold by the gallon.” (not *“Milk is sold by a gallon.”)

My advice to you? Go with the flow. See and hear how English is used, and just try your best to get it right. The more examples you hear, the better your English will be. And yes, go ahead and scream. It’s OK. We understand!

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