Articles are the littlest words in the English language but they seem to cause the most amount of trouble! Since many languages around the world don’t use articles, English language learners tend to have trouble with these words. Here are some useful tips on how and when to use articles:
We use a or an when we are making a reference to one particular, nonspecific thing. It is clear that I, as the speaker, am referring to something specific, but you, as the listener, do not know EXACTLY to what thing I am referring. For example:
This morning I had a banana for breakfast.
In this case, I as the speaker know which banana I am referring to, but you as the listener do not know exactly which banana I ate.
We use an in front of words that begin with a vowel sound (a, e, i, o, u), and a in front of all other sounds, or consonant sounds. Remember, just because a word begins with a consonant, doesn’t mean it begins with a consonant SOUND! For example, we would say an honest man, rather than a honest man, because the word honest begins with an “o” sound.
A and an are only used with singular, countable nouns.
Use the word the when you are making a specific reference to something. It should be clear to both the speaker AND the listener to what you are referring.
I ate the banana I bought at Starbucks for breakfast this morning.
In this case, it is very clear to what you are referring. Usually, these types of sentences give more detailed information. Compare this to the previous example above.
Use the word the when you are mentioning something while speaking about it for the second time. For example:
Yesterday I saw a cat. The cat was chasing a mouse. The mouse ran into a hole. The hole was in a tree. The tree was big.
As you can see here, it becomes clear to the listener which cat, mouse, hole, and tree the speaker is referring to when they mention it for the second time. It is as if the word the is like saying the thing that I just mentioned.
Do NOT use an article when you are referring to something in general.
The bananas are yellow. This is INCORRECT. The correct version of this sentence is:
Bananas are yellow.
Do NOT use an article when you are using a noncount noun in a generic way.
For example: I like to eat the fruit for breakfast. This is INCORRECT. The correct version is:
I like to eat fruit for breakfast. OR I will eat the fruit on the table in the kitchen for breakfast. In this second sentence, there is clarifying information, so there reference is not generic.