Articles that Aren’t in the News


This post may not appeal to many people who speak English as a first language. But as I explained for the bazillionth time (probably an underestimate) this week how English speakers use those three little words a, an and the, it struck me what a miracle of meaning those three little words convey. So here for those learning English and for those who speak it and would like a peak into the deeper grammar, is an explanation of a, an and the, otherwise known as articles.

When my sister was born, she had a difficult time. She weighed in at over 10 pounds and my mother had struggled with her birth. In those days, the hospital separated the babies, putting them in a nursery. My father took a look the babies and wondered which one was her. She looked so different from me with jaundiced skin compared to my white as paper skin. He needed to know which baby was the baby. The baby my mother had just given birth to. The baby he would take home. Of course, he found her. But it took some time and a nurse to find the baby.

Like an ID card or a pointer that shows you just which one you are talking about, the is a word  that points out something that is the only one or the only one in our little world of a conversation. Only one baby in that nursery was my sister. Dad needed to find that one. The one.

The is very useful. You can use the with count nouns that are plural and singular. You can use the with non count nouns. If you are not sure what article to use, the is a pretty safe bet.

A and an are more generic. If you go to a park today, you are likely to see a baby. The baby you see is one of many babies. To you he or she is not unique because the baby you see is not yours. Unless, you start to tell a story about her (like I just did). Then she becomes the baby because you have chosen her in your story.

A and an are only used with single count nouns. You cannot use them with plurals or count nouns because they mean one. One plus a plural or one plus something you can’t count doesn’t work.

The use of these three little words can and often does get more complicated. Here’s a link to a more detailed explanation:

And some practice:

A professor from the University of Washington once told me that the most important rule is to put an article (or another quantifier) in front of a single count noun. If you remember nothing else, remember that my sister was either a baby or the baby. She was not ‘baby.’ First language American English speakers would not say that.