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Learning Outcomes

This package will help you revise the use the definite and indefinite articles ( the and a/an) and when articles are omitted.


Before we look at this in detail, think about these questions.

1. How many articles are there?

2. What are they?

3. When would you usually use a and an?

4. Why would you say a university but an umbrella?

5. Which of these would you put a definite article in front of?

  Peninsula Hotel Hong Kong University
  China People’s Republic of China
  South China Morning Post South China Sea
  IBM Nathan Road
  Legco TVB

6. Which article would you use if you were introducing something new to someone?

7. Which article would you use if you were talking about something that your listener was already aware of?

8. What is the difference between these three sentences?

     a). A student needs to work hard.

     b). Students need to work hard.

     c). The students need to work hard.

9. Would you put an article in the gaps in these sentences?

a). I’m going ______ home. b). ______ school that I went to has closed down  now.
c). He’s in ______ hospital. d). When I began life at ______ university, I was quite naive.
e). Let’s have ______ dinner tomorrow  f). I’m going to Taiwan for ______ Chinese New Year
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Form, Use and Meaning

Compare a and the in these examples:

I had a croissant and an apple for lunch.  The croissant wasn't very good, but the apple was nice.

In this example, the person says 'a croissant', 'an apple' because this is the first time they talk about them. The speaker says 'the croissant', 'the apple' in the second instance because the listener knows which croissant and which apple they mean - the croissant and the apple that they had for lunch.

The and a/an are called "articles". We divide them into "definite" and "indefinite" like this:

We use "definite" to mean sure, certain. "Definite" is particular.

We use "indefinite" to mean not sure, not certain. "Indefinite" is general.

When we are talking about one thing in particular, we use the. When we are talking about one thing in general, we use a or an.

  • Think of the sky at night. In the sky we see 1 moon and millions of stars. So normally we would say:
    • I saw the moon last night.
    • I saw a star last night.

Look at these examples:

Of course, often we can use the or a/an for the same word. It depends on the situation, not the word. Look at these examples:

  • We need to get an umbrella. (Any umbrella, not a particular umbrella.)
  • Damn, I’ve left the umbrella on the bus? (We already have an umbrella. We have left our umbrella, a particular umbrella on the bus.)

This little story should help you understand the difference between the and a, an:

A man and a woman were walking along Nathan Road. The woman noticed a magazine that she liked in a convenience store. She asked the man if he could get the magazine for her. He replied: "Do you think the shop will accept a $1,000 note? I don’t have an octopus card."

Compare a and the in these examples:

  • A man and a woman were sitting opposite me. I think the man was North Korean, and the woman was South Korean.
  • When we were in Europe, we stayed at a cheap backpackers’ hostel. Sometimes we ate at the hostel but usually we went out to a street stall nearby.

We use the when we are thinking of a specific thing. Compare a/an and the:

  • Elly lay down on a sunbed. (one of many sunbeds around the pool)
  • She lay down on the sunbed nearest the bar. (a specific sunbed)
  • Megan is looking for a job. (not a specific job)
    Did Megan get the job she applied for? (a specific job)

We use the when it is clear in the situation which thing or person we mean.

For example, in a room we talk about the light / the floor / the ceiling / the door / the carpet etc…

  • Can you turn down the TV, please? (= the television in this room)
  • I took a taxi to the airport. (= the airport in or near that city)
  • (in a bank) Could I talk to the manager, please? (= the manager of this bank)

In the same way, we say (go to) the bank, the post office, supermarket, cinema even though there is probably more than one of them:

  • I’m going to the supermarket and then the news agents. (The speaker is usually thinking of a specific supermarket or news agents.)

We also say (go to) the doctor / the dentist / school / hospital / vet:

  • My dog isn't very well. I’m taking him to the vet. (= the usual vet)
  • I hate going to the dentist.

Compare the and a:

  • I have to go to the bank today.
    Is there a bank near here?
  • I don't like going to the dentist.
    My sister is a dentist.


We say 'once a week / twice a day / three times a year / $11.50 a kilo' etc…

  • 'How often do you play tennis?' 'About twice a week.'
  • 'How much is the garoupa?' '$91.50 a pound.'
  • Sally works at least ten hours a day, six days a week, twelve months a year – she never seems to have a break.


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