Articles. Articles are tiny little words, but they can cause so much stress for non-native English speakers.
We use them (or don’t use them – it depends!) with every noun, in every sentence.
There are so many rules, and so many exceptions.
If you feel confused by articles, you’re certainly not alone!
Many English learners study the basic rules, use articles correctly 50-75% of the time, and then choose to move on to more difficult English concepts.
If you are comfortable with your current level of mastery of articles and are more interested in communicating your ideas than perfecting and refining your speech, more power to you!
However, if you are interested in sounding more natural in English, it is important that you learn how to use articles accurately.
Because articles are used all of the time in spoken English and native speakers can use them without even thinking about the rules, tiny little mistakes with articles actually sound much more obvious than you’d expect!
If you make the same mistake again and again, the person listening to you will definitely notice.
This is why improving your use of articles and making an effort to increase your accuracy with articles is essential to sounding more fluent and more professional in English.
In order to use articles accurately, you need to do a few things:
- Learn and review the rules for articles.
- Learn the exceptions to the rules for articles.
- Learn which mistakes with articles are common for speakers of YOUR native language and avoid making them; and
- Learn how articles are pronounced in natural, fluent speech
Learn and review the rules for articles
As an advanced student of English, you have probably studied articles in each language course you’ve taken!
There are many textbooks that provide excellent charts describing the use of articles, and I suggest you review the rules for articles periodically, at least once every six months.
(If you don’t have access to your old English textbook, you can find a simple, clear explanation of the basic rules for definite and indefinite articles at the Purdue Online Writing Lab here. If you would prefer to watch a video, you can watch Ronnie explain articles on YouTube. For an excellent summary of the when we do NOT use the definite article, check out this post by English Teacher Melanie.)
Before moving on, make sure you understand the following terms:
Indefinite article = a / an
Definite article = the
No article = no use of a/an/the
Learn and review the exceptions to the rules for articles
After reviewing the basic rules for using the definite and infinite articles, you want to make sure that you pay attention to the exceptions to the rules and the special cases.
For example, you have probably learned that we use no article with the names of countries.
You know that you should say, “I live in Russia,” not “the Russia.”
So you should be able to say, “I want to study in USA,” right? WRONG.
We use the definite article with the US. So you should say, “I want to study in the US.”
We also say the UK, the UAE, the People’s Republic of China, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, and the Netherlands.
This is why it is important to frequently review the exceptions and special cases where we use the definite article.
In order to help you sound more natural in English, I’m going to highlight the exceptions to the rules that you should really make an effort to get right because they are more common in everyday speech.
One common mistake is forgetting to use the definite article with a word like “sun” or “moon.” We say, “The sun is really strong today” because the sun is a unique object and there is only one sun! We say:
- the sun
- the moon
- the stars
- the universe
In speech, we often refer to certain places using the definite article, especially when we are thinking more of the concept of the place than the actual physical location.
For example, we say, “I need to go to the bank today.”
I’m not talking about a specific bank that my listener knows about — if you live in a city like Boston or New York, there are hundreds — but rather the idea of the bank.
This is also why we refer to the doctor’s office as the doctor, or the barbershop as the barber.
Here is a list of examples:
- the bank
- the library
- the grocery store
- the post office
- the doctor
- the dentist
- the (convenience) store
- the gas station
- the office
- the hospital (in American English)
- the hairdresser
- the barber
- the beach
- the mountains
We also use the definite article with systems of transportation:
- the bus
- the subway
- the metro
- the T / el (name of system)
- the blue line / the red line / the 1 / the 4 / the G (name of subway line)
- the train
- the commuter rail
- the ferry
For example, “You need to take the subway and get off in Harvard Square.”
Finally, we use no article with familiar places, meals, times of day, and seasons, so make sure NOT to say “the.” Here’s a helpful list:
- college / university
The best way to remember all of these exceptions is to practice them verbally, repeating them to yourself until they start to sound normal.
You have to convince yourself that this is how English is used – even if it seems strange based on the rules used in your native language.
Learn which mistakes with articles are common for speakers of YOUR native language and avoid making them
As I mentioned, it is important that you learn which mistakes with articles are most common for speakers of your native language.
Interference from our first language is completely normal, so it’s important to figure out what the common mistakes are and avoid making them.
For example, articles do not exist in Korean – neither the definite nor the indefinite article!
For this reason, Korean speakers often leave out the definite article when speaking.
In addition, it is often hard for Korean speakers to pronounce a word ending in a consonant followed by a word beginning by a consonant, so many English learners add the schwa sound, pronounced much like the indefinite article “a.”
This can make it sound as if a Korean speaker is adding the indefinite article when they should use no article.
In addition, speakers of Romance languages like Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese are much more used to using the definite article in their native tongues.
This means that they often add the definite article when English would use no article.
For example, my students often say, “What are you going to have for the lunch?” when native English speakers would say, “What are you going to have for lunch?”
Lastly, Arabic does not have an indefinite article, so many Arabic speakers do not use it when speaking English.
This is why they say, “My brother is teacher,” instead of “My brother is a teacher.”
The best way to identify the common mistakes with articles made by speakers of your native language is to ask a professional English teacher, although you may be able to find some information on Google (try searching with “common mistakes articles __language___ speaker”).
After you’ve identified the common mistakes you are making, be sure to repeat the steps above, and convince yourself that the rules in natural English are, in fact, correct!
Learn how articles are pronounced in natural, fluent speech
The funny thing about articles is that even though these tiny words can make you sound less natural in English if you use them correctly, articles are actually reduced in natural, native speech.
Because articles aren’t as important as content words (the most important words in your sentence), their sound is reduced and the words are de-stressed.
Even though you want to make sure to use articles correctly, you also do not want to over-pronounce them or over-emphasize them, because that will actually make you sound less natural, when our goal is to help you sound more natural in English!
I know this was a long explanation for such short words, but articles are really important in natural sounding English. Please comment below and tell me which tip about articles you found most useful.
Want to use grammar more naturally? Click here to explore my other resources on using grammar structures like a native speaker.