Definite and indefinite articles are parts of speech referring to the terms “the,” “a,” and “an.”
Definite articles definition: a determiner (the) that introduces specific nouns and noun phrases.
Indefinite articles definition: a determiner (a, an) that introduces nonspecific nouns and noun phrases.
What is an Article?
What is a definite article? A definite article is a part of speech that identifies a specific noun. “The” is the only definite article.
Placing “the” before a noun makes it specific. In order to say “the book,” the audience has to know to what book you are referring.
What is an indefinite article? An indefinite article is a part of speech that identifies a nonspecific noun. “A” and “an” are the only indefinite articles.
Placing “a” or “an” before a noun makes it nonspecific. To say “a book” refers to any book, not a single specific book.
The examples below will further outline the difference.
- a cow (nonspecific—could be any cow)
- the cow (specific—referring to a particular cow)
- an animal (nonspecific—could be any animal)
- the animal (specific—referring to a particular animal)
Two Types of Articles: Definite and Indefinite Articles
The Definite Article
The definite article is “the.” “The” refers to a particular noun that is understood. The audience is aware of the object of reference and no further identification is needed.
Definite Article Examples:
- the chair, the city, the manager
- the chairs, the cities, the managers
- the boxes, the towns, the women
- the food, the luggage, the electricity
The Indefinite Article
The indefinite article is “a” / “an” “A” and “an” refer to nonspecific nouns. The object of reference is not clear and further identification would be needed to know the exact object.
Indefinite Article Examples:
- a chair, a city, a manager
- plural—CANNOT BE USED
- a box, a town, a woman
- non-count—CANNOT BE USED
A vs. An: Remember A/An Depends on Sound
Which indefinite article to use (“a” or “an”), depends on the initial sound of the noun.
When to use A: If the initial sound of the noun when pronounced is a consonant sound, “a” is used.
- a bowl
- a gnat
- a hoax
- A few days after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Monika Baginski was in a supermarket, chatting with a friend on the phone in her native Polish, when a man followed her down the aisle. –The New York Times
When to use An: If the initial sound of the noun when pronounced is a vowel sound, “an” is used.
- an apple
- an eel
- an honor
- A catchy soundtrack used to be enough, but the 21st century needs an app to publicize shark activity near New England’s coasts. –The Christian Science Monitor
Exercises with Articles: Indefinite vs. Definite Articles
Select the appropriate article (a, an, the) and fill-in the blank below.
- Do you have ___ different table available?
- He was searching for ____ right word to describe the situation.
- This is ___ last time I will remind you to do your chores.
- Braxten brought ___ apricot, ___ sandwich, and ____ cookie for lunch.
- My mom demanded ____ explanation.
See answers below.
Articles and Proper Nouns
For the most part, articles are not used with proper nouns. However, some exceptions apply.
Use Articles With:
- family names
- the Smith Family, the Jones Family
- kingdoms, states, republics, island groups, and plural noun countries
- the United Kingdom, the United States, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the Canary Islands,
- mountain ranges, rivers, oceans
- the Rocky Mountains, the Amazon, the Atlantic Ocean
- newspapers, organizations, hotels, buildings
- the New York Times, the Red Cross, the Hyatt, the Capitol Building
Summary: What are Definite and Indefinite Articles in English?
Define definite article: The definition of a definite article is a determiner (the) used to identify a specific noun or noun phrase.
Define indefinite article: The definition of an indefinite article is a determiner (a, an) used to identify a nonspecific noun or noun phrase
In summary, articles can be definite or indefinite.
When to use the: Use a definite article (the) when the noun is a known entity.
When to use a, an: Use indefinite articles (a/an) when the noun is an unknown entity.
- an, a, a