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A/An Vs The
Grammar / 17 August 2020

A/An Vs The

‘A’/an’ and ‘the’ – they are such small words. We use them all the time. Think of the last sentence you said. Chances are, it included at least one of those three. But could you explain to someone why each one is used? Why ‘a’ is more appropriate than ‘the’? Does it really matter? Well, yes it does, and that’s why we are going to explain further.


A/An and The – Definite and Indefinite Articles

Officially adjectives, ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’ are called ‘articles’. They are used to modify and define a noun and can do this in a definite or indefinite way.

A/An = indefinite article – used for non-specific items

The = definite article – used for specific or known items


Consider the difference between:

  • I went to a party last night


  • I went to the party last night


The use of ‘a’ shows that the listener does not know which party the speaker is referring to, but ‘the’ refers to a specific party that the listener is aware is happening.


When ‘A/An’ and ‘The’ are Used Together

Obviously, not all sentences use just one or the other. Let’s take a look at this sentence:

  • I got on the train and there was a man sitting by the door. At the next station, the man got off and a woman got on and sat in the same seat.


Here are the reasons for choosing each article:

  • the train → you only got on one, specific train
  • a man → the man is not known to you
  • the door → you know which door because you just cam through it
  • the next station → there is only one specific station that is next
  • the man → the man has already been mentioned, so he is known to the listener
  • a woman → the woman is not known to you
  • the same seat → the seat is known in the story, as it is the same one the man sat in


Rule of thumb

If something has already been mentioned in a sentence or story using ‘a/an’ (a man), then it is preceded by ‘the’ if it is mentioned again (the man) because it is now known to the listener.


Zero Article

There are several circumstances where no article is needed.

  • My grandma is in hospital.
  • Is your little girl at school yet?
  • We have lunch at 1pm.
  • Breakfast is served between 6am and 9am.
Time expressions
  • We’re going on holiday next week.
  • My brother graduated last year.
Work, home, bed
  • I start work at 8am.
  • My dad gets home and then cooks dinner.
  • I’m going to bed. 


Choosing the wrong word won’t hinder communications,
but getting it right will put you one more step closer
to being the proficient user of English that you want to be!

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