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THE is called the definite article and A and AN are called the indefinite articles.

A is used before a consonant sound and AN before a vowel sound.

1. a desk
2. a house
3. a union
4. a European
5. an ipad
6. an hour
7. an MP
8. an X-ray

The words UNION and EUROPEAN begin with a consonant sound though the first letters are vowels. Therefore we use A (not AN) before them. Note also that the words MP and X-ray begin with a vowel sound. It is the sound that matters, not the spelling.

THE has a definite meaning. That is….THE is used when it is clearly understood which or what is meant. A and AN are used when the person or thing is not specified. It leaves indefinite the person or thing spoken about.

Read the following.

A bus hit a lamp-post. The bus was damaged and the lamp-post was bent. Luckily, the people on the bus had no serious injuries.

Look at the first sentence again. “A bus hit a lamp-post” Which bus? Which lamp- post. They are not definite. A bus means a certain bus. A lamp-post means a certain lamp-post.

Next sentence….. The bus was damaged and the lamp-post was bent.

Which bus and which lamp-post? Now they are made definite.

The bus = the bus I have just spoken about
The lamp-post = the lamp-post I have just mentioned

Study the last sentence.

Which people = The people on the bus.

The phrase ON THE BUS makes it clear which people are meant.

Again THE is used before BUS.

The bus = the bus already known to the listener

Remember these points.

We use A / AN when we are talking about a person or thing for the first time. When we refer to the same person or thing again, we use THE.

We use THE when it is clear from the context which person or thing we mean.

We use A or AN, when it is not clear which one we mean.

Below are further examples.

Compare (a) and (b) given below.

(a) Let’s go to the park. (You know which park I mean. It is the park we usually go to.)

(b) Let’s find a park. (The speaker has no particular park in mind. It is unfamiliar town.)

(a) The girl wearing a blue-skirt is my sister. (The words “wearing a blue-skirt” tell us which girl.)

■ (b) A girl fell off her bicycle and was injured. (We don't know which girl.)

Keep in mind that THE is used when we are thinking of a thing or person as the only one in a particular context. In your house you talk about the floor, the hall and the kitchen, because your house has only one floor, one hall, one kitchen. Similarly, you say “the principal when you mean the principal of the school where you are studying.

A similar use of THE is with the names of things which are the only one of their kind.

1. The Sun
2. The Moon
3. The Sky
4. The Earth

We use THE before superlatives.

1. The best
2. The biggest

Because, there is only one - the best, one biggest and the ordinals - the first, the sixth.

Because, there is only one first and one sixth.

We use THE before an adjective to make it into a noun meaning all members of a group or class (used with a plural verb).

1. The poor = poor people in general
2. The old = old people in general

We use THE before a singular noun to make it general (followed by a singular verb.)

1. The cow is a useful animal.
2. The Cows are useful animals.

THE is used with musical instruments after the verbs play & like.
She plays the piano.

But…

1. We play cricket.
2. We play football.

We usually say “the radio” but “television” / “TV” (without the).

1. We listen to the radio and watch TV.

But we use A or THE before “television” when the word is used in a different way.

1. He has bought a TV. (= a TV set)
2. Have you repaired the TV? (= the TV set)

We use THE before the words Internet / Net and Web.

1. I have read the newspaper on the Net.
2. She is surfing the Web.

Many proper names take no article.

1. Rivers
2. Canals
3. Seas
4. Oceans

The following take THE.

1. The Ganga
2. The Nile
3. The Suez Canal
4. The Red Sea
5. The Indian Ocean
6. The Atlantic Ocean

2. Plural place names (including mountain groups and names containing the word UNION or UNITED take THE.

1. The Netherlands
2. The West Indies
3. The Himalayas
4. The USA
5. The UK

3. The following Deserts take THE.

1. The Sahara Desert
2. The Kalahari Desert

4. Certain other names take THE.

1. The Sudan
2. The Gambia
3. The Hague

5. Plural names referring to a whole family take THE.

1. The Wilsons
2. The Guptas
3. The Chopras

Names of people take no article. However, A or AN may be used before a personal name.

1. A Mr. Jones rang up this morning.

A Mr. Jones = a man called Jones (I don’t know exactly who he is. But that is his name).

The indefinite article A / AN really means one. So it can only be used with singular countable nouns. It can’t be used with uncountable nouns.

We use A / AN….

1. In the sense of one….

1. I will be back in an hour.
2. I bought a pineapple and a dozen bananas.

2. In the sense of each and every….

1. The cloth is ninety rupees a metre.
2. He goes to Hyderabad twice a month.

3. To say that a person is a member of a particular class or group, or when we say what people are like….

1. My uncle is a doctor.
2. Ramesh is a brilliant student.

We use no article with school, college, church, prison and hospital when we are talking about them as institutions and we are interested in what we use them for. But we use an article if we are talking about them as buildings.

1. School begins at ten o’clock.
2. Peter has gone to church (to pray).
3. The man was sent to prison for stealing bicycles.
4. Ganesh is in hospital. He is very ill.

But….

1. The school is a new building.
2. There is a church in that street.
3. The visitors came out of the prison.
4. The hospital is a long way from my house.

Note also….

1. Go to bed to sleep
2. Go to work
3. Be at work
4. Be at home
5. Go home

Note also the following common expressions without an article. For comparison, parallel examples with regular uses of the article are also given.

WITHOUT ARTICLE

1. by bicycle
2. by bus
3. by car
4. by train
5. by plane
6. by ship
7. by boat
8. at dawn
9. at daybreak
10. at sunrise
11. at sunset
12. at night
13. by night
14. at noon
15. at midnight
16. at dusk
17. at twilight

WITH ARTICLE

1. ride on the bicycle
2. sit on the bus
3. travel in the car
4. take the train
5. take a train
6. be on the plane
7. sit in the boat
8. during the day
9. in the morning
10. during the morning
11. in the afternoon
12. in the evening
13. in the night

Uncountable and plural constables take no article when used in a general sense. They take THE when used in a particular sense.

Compare….

He loves life.

A very general idea — he loves everything in life.

1. I’m studying the life of Newton. (A particular life)
2. We can learn a lot from history. (General sense)
3. The book is about the history of Britain. (Particular sense)
4. Teachers should be respected. (All teachers)
5. The teachers of this school are on strike. (Particular teachers)

Names of meals do not take an article, unless the reference is to a particular meal.

1. They are at lunch.
2. Dinner will be served soon.

But…

1. Were you at the lunch for the Chairman? (Particular lunch)
2. The dinner was well cooked. (Particular dinner)

We use A / AN if there is an adjective before breakfast and lunch.

1. I was very busy. So I had a quick breakfast.
2. I had a heavy lunch.

Names of languages have no article.

1. I’m learning English.
2. He knows Sanskrit.

But we should say….

1. The English Language
2. The Sanskrit Language

Names of relations, like father, mother, aunt, uncle and also cook and nurse meaning our cook or our nurse take no article.

1. When will father be back?
2. Aunt wants you to see her.
3. Cook is ill.
4. Nurse has grown lazy.

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