John’s English Blog

I’m John, an English language teacher. Welcome to my blog.

Definite and indefinite articles

Articles, the golden rule


This is the first in a series of blog posts about articles.

English has two articles; the definite article, “the” and the indefinite article, “a”. If you speak a language without articles, such as Russian or Chinese, then these can seem confusing. Here I explain the golden rule of when to use an article. In further blog posts I’ll explain more detailed rules on how to use articles.

There are three parts to the golden rule.

  1. If you know which I mean then use the.
  2. Otherwise if it’s a singular noun use a or an.
  3. Otherwise don’t use an article.

Now for some examples.

you know which I mean

  1. Every week Alice puts out the rubbish.
    You know which rubbish Alice put out. It’s probably her own rubbish.
  2. Bob went to the shop.
    Bob usually goes to the local supermarket. You know he went to the local supermarket and not to another shop.
  3. The plumber called.
    Earlier I called a plumber and he called me back.
  4. The meeting is at 3 o’clock.
    We spoke about the sales meeting earlier so you know which meeting I mean.
  5. Charlie found the keys.
    I told you that Charlie had lost his car keys so you know which keys I mean.

otherwise if it’s a singular noun use “a” or “an”

  1. There’s a black cat outside.
    You don’t know which cat. It could be any black cat.
  2. Duncan drinks a cup of coffee every morning.
    You don’t know which cup of coffee.
    Maybe you know what type of coffee, but you don’t know which cup of coffee.
  3. Do you have a pen?
    You don’t know which pen I mean, because I don’t know if you have a pen.
  4. Emily saw a dog.
    You don’t know which dog. It could be any dog.
  5. Frank looked for a way in.
    You don’t know which way in I mean. Maybe there’s more than one.

otherwise don’t use an article

  1. Alice likes cookies.
    You don’t know which cookies I mean and it’s plural.
  2. Bob is afraid of water.
    Water is an uncountable noun.
  3. Charlie watches crime series.
    You don’t know which crime series I mean and it’s plural.
  4. Duncan needs help.
    Help is an uncountable noun.
  5. Students love articles.
    You don’t know which articles I mean and it’s plural.


Back to the article

  1. What is the capital of Scotland?
  2. I show you a plate with 10 cookies and say: would you like a cookie?
  3. I show you a plate with 1 cookie and say: would you like the cookie?
  4. You say: I don’t like cookies. I say: do you like cupcakes?
  5. You live next to a shop. You often go there. You need to buy some milk. You say: I’m going to the shop.
  6. In my childhood I was never afraid of heights.
  7. “Beware of the dog.”
  8. Yesterday, Alice saw a beautiful black cat with green eyes. She didn’t know where it had come from.
  9. Does your flat have a balcony?
  10. Yesterday, you spoke to a baker. I ask you: what did the baker say?

I hope you enjoyed this blog post. If you have any comments, questions or corrections please write them below.

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