Articles are simply a, an, and the. These words define a noun as being specific or unspecific, yet cause all manner of issues due to the fact most languages use articles slightly differently, or not at all.
Generally speaking, the two types of articles can be categorised as the indefinite and definite article.
Indefinite article (a or an)
An indefinite article must be used if the noun is singular and unspecific. Example:
My sister has a dog.
The article remains even if the noun is preceded by an adjective. Example:
My sister has a beautiful dog.
An is used if the proceeding word begins with a vowel. However, contrary to popular belief, this means a vowel sound, not simply a vowel spelling. For example:
He is an honest man.
In the word honest, the h is silent, so the word begins with a vowel sound.
There is a university in Cologne.
University, in effect, begins with a ‘y’ sound, so does not require an.
The definite article the is used when something is now specific. This can be because it has been mentioned before, or if it is a unique thing. Examples:
My sister has a dog. The dog is a Doberman.
The sun is shining brightly today.
Some nouns are uncountable, meaning that there is no plural form. In these cases, the indefinite article can never be used (and is usually replaced by some), and the rule for the definite article is the same. Examples:
Can I have some water. The water tastes bad.
I require some understanding of the subject. The understanding I have is not sufficient.
A zero article, or no article, is used when something is abstract. Example:
Understanding is key to life. (not The understanding…)
Specific uses of the definite article
There are some specific times when the definite article is used, or not used, which may not logically follow the rule of something being specific or unspecific. Examples:
|Definite article||No article|
eg, The Nile, The Danube
eg, Lake Geneva, Lake Titicaca
Cities, countries, continents
|Institutions||School, university, hospital, church, prison
Focuses on the building itself.
|School, university, hospital, church, prison
Focuses on the main reason for attending that place.
|Last/Next||When something is the last or next in a sequence, or of a defined period.
We are going to Spain in the last week of August.
|When something is being referenced in relation to now.
We went to Spain last month.
|Places around town||These are habitual remnants from when there would literally have been one of these places in a town or city.
We’re going to the cinema. I need to go to the bank and the post office
There may be other occasions when no discernible article rule is being used, but instead something is habitual. These instances must be taken as exceptions.