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Articles are words that introduce and give clarifying information about nouns or noun phrases. There are two types: indefinite (a and an) and definite (the). While this handout provides basic information, writers should write with their specific audience and assignment in mind.

When to Use an Article

Flowchart explaining when to use an article

Proper or Common Nouns

A proper noun is the specific name of a person, place, or thing (John, Tokyo, UVU).

  • Use the before plural proper nouns (The Patels, the Rocky Mountains, the Netherlands).
  • Do not use an article before singular proper nouns (David Lopez, Mount Hood, Egypt).

A common noun is a general word for a person, place, or thing (person, city, university).


Use the with the proper noun (name) of a historical event or period (the Middle Ages), building (the Capitol), or geographic feature (the Gulf of Mexico, the Panama Canal, the Red Sea, the Equator).

Specific or General Nouns

Specific nouns refer to a specific member or to several specific members of a general category. Normally, they require the definite article, the.

  • Example: The dogs in the park are playing. (The word dogs refers to a specific group of dogs).

General nouns refer to a general class of something, rather than to a specific member of a class.

  • Example: Dogs are animals. (The word dogs refers to a class of animals, not to any specific animals).


Often when a specific noun is mentioned for the first time, it is treated like a general noun. However, any time the noun is mentioned after, the definite article the is used as it is talking about a specific noun.

  • Example: Yesterday, I bought a book, but it was not until today that I was able to read the book.

Uncountable or Countable Nouns

Uncountable nouns cannot be numbered and usually do not require articles (jewelry, happiness, dirt). Countable nouns refer to something that can be counted (children, thoughts, problems).


An uncountable noun can be turned into a specific noun. In such cases, use the definite article the. This situation normally occurs

  1. if the uncountable noun is modified by a phrase or clause that makes it more specific and limited.
    • Example: John shoveled the dirt in that pile. (The word dirt refers to a specific pile of dirt).
  2. if the uncountable noun refers to a specific portion, amount, or collection of the uncountable noun.
    • Example: John shoveled most of the dirt. (The word most makes the amount of dirt countable).

Plural or Singular Nouns

Plural nouns (as long as they are general) do not need an article. (Cars are used for transportation.)

Singular nouns need either a or an. (A car is used for transportation.)


A countable, singular noun sometimes takes the when it refers to a general group.

  • Example: The customer is always right. (The customer refers to the general group of all customers).

Which Indefinite Article (A or An)

Use a before words that begin with consonant sounds. Use an before words that begin with vowel sounds (an owl, an hour). The article is determined by the word directly following the article (a dog, an ugly dog).

When Not to Use an Article

There are several cases where writers should not place an article before a noun:

  • Before the names of languages, sports, and fields of study (Gaelic, soccer, sociology, etc.).
  • When the noun is modified by a demonstrative pronoun (this, that, those, these, etc.).
  • When the noun is modified by a possessive pronoun (my, his, her, its, their, your, etc.).
  • When the noun is modified by various other quantity words that indicate a noun will follow (all, another, each, every, many, much, some, seven, etc.).