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The indefinite article, use and omission
The definite article, use and omission

*The Indefinite article
1. Form
The indefinite article is a or an.
The form a is used before a word beginning with a consonant, or a vowel sounded like a consonant:
a man, a table, a university, a useful thing

The form 'an' is used before words beginning with a vowel(a,e,i,o,u) or words beginning with a mute h:
an hour, an honourable man, an elephant, an apple
It is same for all genders:
a man, a woman, an actor, an actress, a table, an animal

2. The indefinite article a or an is used:
A. Before a singular noun which is countable (i.e. of which there is more than one) when it is mentioned for the first time and represents no particular person or thing:
I need a holiday.
They live in a bungalow.
There is a policeman at the door.

B. Before a singular countable noun which is used as an example of a class of things:
A car must be insured = all cars/any car must be insured.
A child needs love = All children / any child needs love.

C. With a noun compliment. This includes names of professions:
He is a doctor.
She is a teacher.
He became an actor.

D. In certain numerical expressions:
a couple            an english      a hundred      a lot of
a dozen            a quarter        a thousand    a great many
half a dozen     a score(20)    a million         a great deal of

E. In expressions of price, speed, ratio etc.
5p a kilo    1 pound a metre     sixty kilometres an hour     10p a dozen      four times a day

F. with few and little
a few = a small number, or what the speaker considers a small number.
a little = a small amount, or what the speaker considers a small amount.

few and little can also be used without article but then have an almost negative meaning, and can usually be replaced by hardly any:
We had little time for amusement implies that we were always busy.
Few people know this (it is almost unknown).

G In exclamations before singular, countable nouns:
What a hot day!
What a pretty girl!
Such a pity!
But what pretty girls! 
What big dogs!
(plural nouns, so no article)

H a can be placed before Mr/Mrs/Miss + surname:
a Mr. Smith
a Mrs. Smith
a Miss Smith

(a Mr. Smith means 'a man called Smith' and implies that he is a stranger to the speaker. Mr. Smith, without a, implies that the speaker knows Mr. Smith or knows of his existence.)

3. The indefinite article is not used:
A. Before plural nouns.
The indefinite article has no plural form. Therefore the plural of a dog is dogs.

B. Before uncountable nouns.
The following nouns are singular and uncountable in English;
advice, information, news, baggage, luggage, furniture
They are often preceded by some, any, a little, a lot of, a piece of etc:
I 'll give you a piece of advice.
There isn't any news.
you need some more furniture.

Knowledge is also considered uncountable, but when used in a particular sense takes the article:
A knowledge of languages is always helpful.
He has a good knowledge of mathematics.

Hair ('all the hair on one's head') is considered uncountable, but if we consider each hair separately we say a hair, two hairs etc.
She has black hair.
The fisherman used a hair to tie the feather to the hook.

Experience's meaning is 'practice in doing (something) which is uncountable. 
But an experience meaning 'something which happens to someone' is countable:
He had an exciting experience (an adventure) last night.

Materials, glass, wood, iron, stone, paper, cloth, wine, coffee, tea etc., are considered uncountable. But many of these nouns can also denote one particular thing, and then take an article:
Windows are made of glass but Have a glass of wine.
We write on a paper but I've got a paper (newspaper).

Iron is a metal but we use an iron to make our clothes wrinkle free (electric iron).
Some, any, a piece of, a lot of etc. are often used here as shown above:
Would you like some coffee?
I want a piece of wood.

C. Before abstract nouns: beauty, happiness, fear, hope, death etc.,
except when they are used in a particular sense:
He was pale with fear.
Some children suffer from a fear of the dark.

D. Before names of meals, except when preceded by an adjective: 
We have breakfast very rarely.
He gave us a good breakfast.

The article is also used when it is a special meal given to celebrate something or in someone's honour:
I was invited to dinner (at their house, in the ordinary way)
but I was invited to a dinner given to welcome the new ambassador.

The definite article

The definite article is the. It is the same for singular and plural and for all genders:
the boy    the boys    the girl   the girls   the day      the days

4. Use of the definite article
A. The definite article is used:
1. Before nouns of which there is only one, or which are considered as one:
the earth    the sea    the sky    the weather    the North pole

2. Before a noun which has become definite as a result of being mentioned a second time:
His car struck a tree; you can still see the mark on the tree.

3. Before a noun made definite by the addition of a phrase or clause:
the girl in the blue
the boy that I met
the man on the donkey
the place where I met him

4. Before a noun which by reason of locality can represent only one particular thing:
Ann is in the garden (the garden of this house).
He sent for the doctor (his own doctor).
Please pass the wine (the wine on the table).

5. Before superlatives and first, second and etc. and only, used as adjectives or pronouns:
Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe.
Most people think that Monday is the worst day of the week.

B. the + singular noun can represent a class of animals or things:
The whale is in danger of becoming extinct.
The deep-freeze has made life easier for housewives.

man can be used to represent the human race, but here it has no article:
If oil supplies run out, man may have to fall back on the horse.
the can, however, be used before a member of a certain group of people:
The small shopkeeper is finding life increasingly difficult.

But in spoken English a plural noun would be more usual here:
Small shopkeepers are finding life increasingly difficult.

the + singular noun as used above takes a singular verb. The pronoun is he, she or it:
The first-class traveller pays more so he expects some comfort.

C. the + adjective represents a class of persons:
the old = old people in general
the strong = strong people in general
The verb is plural, the pronoun is they:
The young are impatient; they want changes.

D. The is used before certain proper names of seas, rivers, groups of islands, chains of mountains, plural names of countries, deserts:
the arctic    
the antarctic (both land and sea)    
the atlantic   
the Alps    
the Netherlands    
the U.S.A   
the Sahara    
the Gobi desert

The is also used before names consisting of noun + of + noun:
the cape of good hope    
the bay of biscay    
the straits of dover    
the U.S.S.R.     
the rann of Kutch   
the union of south africa    
the gulf of mexico

The is used before names consisting of adjective + noun (provided the adjective is not east, west etc.):
the Gold coast    
the Ivory Coast    
the New Forest    
the Hindu Kush    
the High Street

The is not used before east/west etc, + noun, 
e.g., Yucatan is in the North America. But we use the if east/west etc. is followed by of
e.g., the west of Spain; and with east/west etc. used alone as nouns:
The south is warmer than the North.
Compare:
I am going to the south (noun)
I am going south (adverb)
North of the town there is a lake
To the north (of the town) there is a lake.
Note also the North Pole, the South Pole, the East End.
the is also used with certain other names:
the Sudan    
the Yemen    
the Hague    
the Riviera    
the Camargue    
the Costa Brava    
the Mall    
the Strand

E. The is used before musical instruments:
She learnt to play the flute.

F. The is used before the names of meals if these are qualified by a clause:
The dinners Peter used to give were really memorable.
The tea we got on the boat was rather disappointing.

5. Omission of the definite article
A. The definite article is not used:

1. Before names of places except as shown above, or before names of people.
Exceptions:
the + plural surname can be used to mean 'the ...... family':
The Smiths = Mr. and Mrs. Smith (and children).

the + singular name can be used to distinguish one person from another of the same name:
We have two Mr. Smiths. Which one do you want?
I want the Mr Smith who works in the Post Office.
Note also that although the is not used before title + noun:
Captain Jones was talking to Doctor Black
it is used before the title alone:
The captain seemed angry with the doctor.
We also use the before a title containing of: the Duke of York.
Finally, it is possible to address two unmarried sisters as The Misses + surname; The Misses Jones, The Misses Smith.

2. Before abstract nouns except when they are used in a particular sense;
Men fear death
but The death of the Prime Minister left his party without leader.

3. after a noun in a possessive case, or a possessive adjective;
the boy's uncle = the uncle of the boy
It is my (blue) book. = The book is mine.

4. Before names of meals
The Scots have porridge for breakfast
but the wedding breakfast was held in her father's house.

5. Before parts of the body and articles of clothing, as these normally prefer a possessive adjective:
Raise your right hand.    
He took off his coat.

But notice that sentences of the type:
She seized the child's collar.    
I patted his shoulder.
The brick hit John in the face.
could be expressed:
She seized the child by the collar.
I patted him on the shoulder.
The brick hit John in the face.

Similarly in the passive:
He was hit on the head.    
He was cut in the hand.

B. Note that in some languages the definite article is used before indefinite plural nouns but that in English the is never used in this way:
Women are expected to like housework (i.e. women in general).
Big hotels all over the world are very much the same.

If we put the before women in the first example, it would mean that we were referring to a particular group of women.

C. nature, where it means the spirit creating and motivating the world of plants and animals etc., is used without the:
If you interfere with nature you will suffer for it.

6. Omission of the before home and before church, market, school, hospital, etc.
A. home

When home is used alone, i.e. is not preceded or followed by a descriptive word or phrase, the is omitted:
He went home.    
She left home.    
They got home late.    
They hurried home.    
They arrived home after dark.

Note that the preposition to is omitted and at is not used after arrive.
But when home is preceded or followed by a descriptive word or phrase it is treated like any other noun as regards articles and prepositions:
We went to the bride's home.
For some years this was the home of your queen.
A mud hut was the only home he had ever known.

B. chapel, church, market, college, school, hospital, court, prison, work, sea

These nouns are used without the when they are visited or used for their primary purpose:
We go to church to pray
           to market to buy or sell
           to school study
           to hospital as patients
           to college for study
           to prison as prisoners
           to bed to sleep
           to court as litigants
           to sea as sailors
           to work as workers

Similarly we can be
in prison/court as prisoners
in hospitals/beds as patients
at church as worshippers
at work/sea/market as workers etc.
We return from work/school/market/church.
We get out of bed, leave hospital, escape from prison.
When these places are visited for other reasons, the article is used:
I went to the church to see the carvings.
He comes to the school sometimes to speak to the headmaster.
He returned from the prison where he had been visiting his brother.
They are at the sea (at the seaside)
But they are at sea ( in a ship but not necessarily as sailors).
He went to the bed (walked over to it)
He went to bed (got into it and presumably went to sleep).

In contrast to the above list, the following very common nouns take the: cathedral, office (as a place of work), cinema, theatre:
He is at the office (but at work).
She is going to the theatre.



 
Mr. Gibbs' English © 2013. All Rights Reserved.
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