English is a truly incredible language.
It is spoken nearly everywhere in the world, and according to the most recent statistics, more than 300 million people speak it as a foreign language.
And yet, despite this widespread popularity, few non-native speakers actually achieve a high level in the English language.
This can be for a multitude of reasons, ranging from low personal interest to having few direct opportunities to have friendly interactions with native speakers.
For many learners, however, I suspect that any desire to learn English well is quenched by the many difficult and confusing features of the English language that seem illogical to speakers of other languages.
Some of the trickiest features of English grammar for foreigners are the three articles:
“a,” “an,” and “the”
These three words are among the most common words in the English language.
In fact, the word “the” is the single most common word in the entire language, while the word “a” is the fifth most common.
Note: “An” is technically the same word as “a,” but is used in situations where the indefinite article precedes a noun that starts with a vowel sound. This is why “an” is not typically found on English word frequency lists. In grammatically-correct English, one should say “an apple,” as opposed to “a apple”.
Now, you might ask:
If these words are so common in English, why are articles so difficult to master?
The answer is simple: while English certainly makes frequent use of grammatical articles, many other languages do not use articles at all, or they use articles in a completely different way.
If you’re a speaker of a language without articles (like Japanese and Russian), learning English articles can be a nightmare. And the situation is only slightly better if you have a language with a similar-but-different article system, like German or my native Italian.
In this article, I’m going to share with you five strategies to master definite and indefinite articles in English grammar.
Before we dig into what these strategies are, however, we need to definite what grammatical articles actually are.
What Is an Article?
Articles (also called determiners) are grammatical function words that indicate whether a following noun or noun phrase is specific or unspecific.
The definite article (“the”) indicates that a noun is specific, or referring to an exact, known entity or concept. When the definite article is used in conversation, it is assumed that the listener knows which specific object or concept is being discussed.
The indefinite articles (“a” and “an”) indicate that a noun is unspecific, or referring to a general or undefined entity or concept. When the indefinite articles are used in conversation, it is assumed that the listener does not know which specific object or concept is being discussed.
Compare the following sentences:
- The dog is barking at the cat.
- A dog is barking at the cat.
Sentence 1 uses the definite article. Because of this, we know that the speaker is referring to a specific, unique dog, and that the speaker is assuming that the listener is also aware of which particular dog is doing the barking. Both speaker and listener know the exact dog being spoken of, so the definite article is the natural choice here.
Sentence 2 uses the indefinite article. Because of this, we only know that the speaker is referring to a “dog” in general, and that whichever dog is may be, it is barking at a particular cat. Since neither the speaker nor the listener know exactly which dog is doing the barking (and only that there is a dog barking), the indefinite article is the natural choice here.
If you find any of the above explanations to be complicated or confusing for you, know that this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complexities of English articles.
There are even more irregularities to be found, specifically involving implied (plural) indefinite articles, geographical nouns, sports, academic subjects, and countable and uncountable nouns. For more information about English articles and their uses, click here.
Now that you’ve learned what English articles are, and seen some of the complex ways in which they are used, let’s get into my five tips for mastering these important features of English grammar.
5 Tips to Help You Master Definite and Indefinite Articles in English Grammar
1. Expose Yourself to as Much English as Possible
My first recommendation is for you to expose yourself to the language as much as possible, so you can see all of the different ways in which definite and definite articles are used in English.
There are a number of ways to do this, but I highly recommend that you first focus on intensive and extensive reading. Read a wide range of texts, ranging from short stories and novels, to newspapers, magazine articles, and books on technical topics.
To observe how articles are used in common, spoken language, I recommend that you watch lots of movies and online videos in English. Focus especially on movies and videos with subtitles, as they allow you to “locate” articles in speech more easily; since articles are spoken so quickly, it may be hard to hear and find them otherwise.
2. Analyze How Articles Are Used in Context
Exposure by itself is necessary, but not enough. Articles are used in English in nearly every sentence, so unless you make an effort to focus on how they are used in context,
When you encounter articles during your book-reading or movie-viewing time, think about one or more of the following:
- What types of articles (definite or indefinite) are used in the sentence? Only one type? Both?
- Are any articles omitted? Why? What effect does this have on the sentence?
- Hypothetically, could any definite articles be changed to indefinite articles in the sentence, and vice-versa? How would this change the meaning of the sentence?
You can think of more possible questions yourself. My point is that you should read and listen with the specific goal of observing and analyzing the ways in which English articles work.
3. Highlight Articles and Take Notes
To make our last tip easier, and to help you better keep track of the articles you encounter, I recommend marking articles that you do not understand while reading.
So long as the text you’re reading from is your own to mark as you wish, you can accomplish this step by reading with a pencil, pen, or highlighter close at hand. If you can’t mark the text (e.g. when reading a library book), you can use a Post-it note to accomplish the same thing.
Whenever you encounter an article (or lack of one) that is used in a confusing way, just underline it, highlight it, or put it in parentheses. You may even want to leave a small note in the margins of the page to explain why this specific article is confusing to you. When you’re done reading, you can then go back through your notes and try to find an explanation for that example using the Internet or a printed English grammar guide.
This also works while reading online, as you can copy and paste any interesting examples of English definite and indefinite articles from your browser into a dedicated file, such as a Google Doc.
And if you’re looking for a place to start analyzing English articles, don’t forget that you could even start by analyzing this very article!
4. Test Your Knowledge of Articles Online
Observing, analyzing, and marking articles as they naturally appear in English are all great ways to increase your passive knowledge of how definite and definite articles work.
Eventually, however, you’re going to have to learn how to turn that passive knowledge into active knowledge.
Thanks to the Internet, you can easily do this by challenging yourself to complete a specific online grammar test.
What you’re going to want to do first is review all the ways that articles work in English, by reading through a short and clear grammar explanation.
You can find hundreds of such explanations by inputting “English articles” into the Google Search box.
Alternatively, you could even read the brief explanation I included at the beginning of this article, though again this does not include every exception and rule.
It is important to note that you should use these grammar explanations only as a reference. Read through them, but don’t try to force yourself to remember everything all at once. Just read them through one time, and then move on to the next step: testing your knowledge.
Back at Google, you can do another search, this time for “english articles test”, or something similar. Your results should be full of short online quizzes that will test your ability to use English articles properly.
Take one of these quizzes on English articles and see how you did.
If you didn’t do well, don’t worry! Just go back to the grammar explanation that you read earlier, and try to figure out what information you may have missed. Then take the quiz again.
Through this cycle of learning and practicing the use of English grammatical articles, you will eventually fully internalize all of their nuanced usages, and be more willing to use them when you converse with native speakers.
…which brings us to our last tip!
5. Use Articles in Conversation, and Get Feedback
Last but not least, make sure you practice using articles in conversation.
This is best done with native speakers. There are a number of inventive ways to do this, but to make things simple, the easiest and quickest way you can go about is to simply have a conversation with a native English speaker and ask him to give you feedback specifically on the way you use articles.
Since definite and indefinite articles are used so frequently in spoken English, you’ll have no shortage of opportunities to gain new insight on how articles work and are used.
For example, you can ask your speaking partner:
- To correct you any time you use an article incorrectly.
- To provide you with alternative ways to use articles well in the context of your conversation.
- To give you direct examples of when and how certain articles are used.
You can do this with any native speaker you come across, but it’s certainly easier if you have a language tutor or a language exchange partner who you are used to exchanging feedback with.
Definite and indefinite articles are extremely common parts of speech in English that follow a specific, nuanced set of rules with lots of exceptions.
For non-native speakers of English, especially those who natively speak languages without articles, learning these rules and applying them well can be very difficult. Despite this, articles can be learned well if you:
- Expose yourself to lots of English, from a wide variety of sources.
- Focus on articles in context, and analyze how they are used.
- Mark the articles that you find in texts, and take notes where necessary.
- Use online quizzes on articles to test your knowledge, and fill in gaps in understanding.
- Use articles when speaking and get feedback from friendly native speakers.
If you’ve read all this, and are still intimidated by English articles and their uses, I’ll leave you with a favorite quote of the amazing Hungarian polyglot Kató Lomb:
“Man lernt Grammatik aus der Sprache, nicht Sprache aus der Grammatik”
(One learns grammar from language, not language from grammar)
Articles may seem like a difficult and often convoluted grammar point, but at the end of the day, they are just a small part of the magnificent and multifaceted English language.
If you can avoid getting lost in long and boring grammar books, and instead lose yourself in captivating English novels and dynamic English conversations, you will soon master articles—and have fun while you do it!
Lastly, if you feel like you still need a guiding hand to help you incorporate these tricky features of English into your speaking, take a look at my premiere course at LinguaCore.com, Improve Your Spoken English. In the course, I teach many of my most innovative and efficient learning techniques, and show you exactly how to apply them so you can speak English more naturally than ever before!
Written by Luca Lampariello