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I can’t for the life of me figure out where to use a and where to use the — and where there is no article at all. Is there a simple rule of thumb to memorize?

The standard rule you always hear:

“If a person knows which item you are talking about then use "the"

. . . doesn’t clear things up for me, as I have no idea whether or not they know.

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11  
While the answers below are useful, I feel you should be warned that English article usage is extremely subtle, and even if you master the rules that cover 90% of the cases, the remaining 10% will be really hard to learn. –  JSBձոգչ Aug 27 '10 at 1:18

7 Answers 7

up vote 38 down vote accepted

Well, if you insist on the rule being simple, here you are:

  • a = some, any
  • the = this, that

Two simple examples. Note that you just wrote "...if a person knows which item you are talking about...". You didn't write "...if the person knows...". And that's correct, because you are not pointing to this or that person, you are talking about any person in general.

On the other hand, my answer starts with "if you insist on the rule being simple". That's because you asked for a rule (= any rule), and I am now talking about that rule. We are talking about the same thing.

Now, I can't think of a (= any) simple rule of thumb when not to use an (= any) article at all, but here are some suggestions:

  • Don't put an (= any) article before a (= any) noun if the (= that) noun is preceded by:
    • a number
    • a possessive adjective ("my", "his", "our"...)
    • a "no", "some" or "any"
    • a "this", "that", "these" or "those"

Examples:

  • Give me a chair! (= any chair you like)
  • Give me the chair! (= this chair)
  • Give me that chair! (no article, you already specified which chair you mean)
  • Give me my chair! (no article)
  • Give me five chairs! (no article)
  • Give me some chairs! (no article)
  • Give me the chairs! (= these chairs)
  • Give me these chairs! (no article)
  • Give me a reason to hit you! (= any reason will do)
  • Give me no reason to hit you! (no article because of "no")
  • Give me no reason to hit you with a chair! (= any chair)
  • Give me no reason to hit you with the chair! (= this chair)
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4  
Articles are often left out of abbreviated writing, such as headlines. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 27 '10 at 14:17
8  
Note that there can be constructions where you use the + a number. "Give me the five dollars you promised!" –  Marthaª Aug 19 '11 at 3:00
    
when do you not use "a" or "the"? Is "give me chair" grammatically correct? –  ealeon Jan 8 at 16:43
2  
There is a multitude of rules govenrning when to use no article at all. Entire dissertations can be, and have been, written on the subject. But when given room for just one short rule of thumb for non-native speakers, I will say this: pick either a or the, according to the rules above. Either you care which chair you get (the), or you do not (a). There is no third possibility. When you have mastered the language to the extent that you can intuitively pick between definite and indefinite, then you can begin to explore all the exceptional situations in which no article is used. –  RegDwigнt Jan 8 at 19:24
    
Some basic and very important rules of thumb which you could/should add to your answer: 1: if it's a singular countable noun it must have an article. 2: for plural and uncountable nouns: the = the; a= ⃠ <--- That's your simple rule for no article, it's the same as for 'a'. –  Araucaria Oct 16 at 5:58

Purdue's Online Writing Lab has a good, thorough explanation: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/540/01/

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There isn't a simple rule, as the definite and the indefinite article are used in different cases.

  • Eat an apple before going to the cinema.

    The sentence is not referring to a particular apple; it can be a random one.

  • Follow the President.

    The sentence is not referring to a random president.

The difference is not between talking of something the other person knows, or not.
In the second example, the person I am talking to could know all the presidents present in the meeting, but he will understand to which president I am referring.

  • Albert taught himself to play the violin.

  • Worry about the future.

    In this case, the article is used to make a generalized reference to something rather than identifying a particular instance.

  • They placed the African elephant on their endangered list.

    African elephant is referring to the whole species, not to a single elephant.

  • She is a McFry.

    The sentence is referring to a member of the family McFry.

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If McFry was a kind of person instead of a last name, that last sentence could mean something different, as in: She is a space cadet. (Which could mean she's zoned out a lot, like Walter Mitty, or it could mean she's an astronaut in training.) –  J.R. Jun 26 at 9:17

Yep. I hate articles too. BTW I am wondering why nobody mentioned that "countable/uncountable/plural" issues? As I understand:

  • You cannot use a/an with plural forms
  • You cannot use a/an with uncountable stuff (say, milk, sugar, water)
  • Some words are kind of "dual" and can represent both countable and uncountable stuff. Example: icecream

Correct me if I am wrong.

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3  
Give that man a beer! Oh, wait, that's uncountable. Sorry! –  Affable Geek Oct 25 '12 at 13:26
    
You'll have to pour beer to get him a beer. Two senses: the first is a mass noun (uncountable) and the second is a serving (mug, glass, etc) of the liquid material, and servings are countable. –  mgkrebbs Jun 15 at 5:38

I've actually put some time into thinking about this and I think the most basic use of "the" and "a/an" has to do with what the speaker/writer assumes about what the listener/reader already knows. A common explanation is that "the" is for definite references, but "a/an" is used for indefinite. Though this may sometimes be the case, it isn't always.

Ex. "I bought a car today." is most certainly not just any car. It's the exact car that the speaker bought. The speaker is saying, "I bought a specific car, but I assume you don't know which one I'm talking about."

Ex. "I bought the car today." which is saying, "I bought a car and I assume you already know which one I'm taking about." (Probably because the speaker has mentioned it to the listener before.)

So if the speaker is wrong in their assumption that the listener already knows, the listener would normally respond, "What car?" In other words, "Please tell me which car you are referring to, because I don't know."


[The text below is in response to Araucaria's comment. -- Thanks, btw.]

The zero article is the plural for "a/an", but I think it points to a category.

Ex. "I like fast cars." = "I like things that fit into the category of fast car."

Ex. "I like cake." = "I like food that fits into the category of cake."

The plural for "a/an" = "speaker assumes listener/reader doesn't know" is "some".

Ex. "I bought some pretzels on the way home" (assumes listener doesn't know which "pretzels")

The plural for "the" in this case is "these/those". Ex. "I bought those pretzels on the way home" (assumes listener does know which pretzels are being referred to) Note also that if the speaker's assumption is wrong, the listener will usually respond, "Which pretzels?"

There are some other functions of "the", "a/a", etc. as well, but I can't remember what they are at the moment.

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If you just added that zero article is the non-count and plural version of "a(n)" then you'd have a comprehensive answer. (There's a little edit button just underneath your post between "share" and "edit") –  Araucaria Oct 16 at 6:11
    
+1 At last, an explanation of this phenomenon. Thanks! I was here banging my head on the table, wondering why no one had explained this basic point at all over the last two years - on this post that everyone keeps linking to. I was just about to go and flush my head down the toilet in despair, when I finally read your post all the way down here at the bottom. Thanks! –  Araucaria Oct 16 at 6:15

More broadly, an interesting colloquial usage of "the" that I've seen is related to subject familiarity. "Learn the computer once and for all", belies a lack of familiarity with computing in general by lumping hardware, software, networking, work, leisure, etc., into an arms-length abstraction "the computer". Not that there's anything wrong with this. Being totally unfamiliar with sports, I might say "the baseball" (referring to the game), because I am essentially warning my listener not to expect any depth from me on that one.

I'm not entirely sure what mechanism at play, but whether used whimsically or unconsciously, it seems to be a concise and reliable construct.

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If you are a native speaker, would you really ever say "the baseball" referring to the game or sport, as the use of the with names of sports is extremely nonstandard. Whereas the computer is standard in many contexts, including one in which a person is showing his ignorance about it/them. –  CarSmack Oct 12 at 8:23

I think the "the computer" situation is a case where "the" refers to a general category, as in "The dog is a domesticated animal" or "The dodo bird is extinct." I suppose you could say, "The computer is one of mankind's most influential inventions."

If you were to say, "Learn about the baseball.", it would probably sound to most people like you're talking about an actual ball, rather than the sport. It would clearer to say, "Learn about the game of baseball." which I'm pretty sure would also mean baseball as a general category (of game).

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