A, An, The

How to Master ‘Articles’ for IELTS Writing

By Gordon Brown

How to Master ‘Articles’ for IELTS Writing

Articles are used before nouns to specify whether the noun is general or specific.

  •  “a” and “an” are indefinite articles. They are used to refer nonspecific nouns which are singular and countable.
  • “the” is a definite article. It can be used with both singular and plural countable and uncountable nouns to show specific reference

If you do not know what countable and uncountable nouns are, we have got you covered! Look at their definitions below:

Countable nouns are used to refer things that can be counted and have singular and plural forms. The plural form is usually ends with an “–s” or an “–es”. For example: one house, two houses; one table, two tables. Sometimes, countable nouns may have irregular plural forms. For example: one woman, two women.

Uncountable nouns are used to describe things that cannot be counted and do not have plural forms. For example: knowledge, love, hate, meat, tea, ice, etc.

Proper nouns refer to name of a person, place, or organization. For example: John Smith, Australia, Road to Abroad, University of Leeds.

Some Common Uncountable English Nouns

Food and Drink: bacon, beef, beer, bread, broccoli, butter, cabbage, candy, cauliflower, celery, cereal, cheese, chicken, chocolate, coffee, corn, cream, fish, flour, fruit, ice cream, lettuce, meat, milk, oil, pasta, rice, salt, spinach, sugar, tea, water, wine, and yogurt

Non-food Substances: air ,cement, coal, dirt, gasoline, gold, ice, leather, paper, petroleum, plastic, rain, rubber, silver, snow, soap, steel, wood and wool.

Abstract nouns: advice, anger, beauty, confidence, courage, employment, fun, happiness, health, honesty, information, intelligence, knowledge, love, poverty, satisfaction, truth, and wealth

Others: biology, clothing, equipment, furniture, homework, jewellery, luggage, lumber, machinery, mail, money, news, poetry, pollution, research, scenery, traffic, transportation, violence, weather, and work

Use of “A” or “An”

“A” and “an” are used are used to refer nonspecific nouns which are singular and countable.

  • I do not own a house.
    In this sentence, “house” is a nonspecific singular countable noun and can refer to any house.
  • Anna would like to study in a university that specializes in space science.
    “University” is a singular noun that is countable. “University” begins with a vowel, but the first sound of the word is /j/ or “y.” Therefore, “a” instead of “an” is used. This sentence is also nonspecific as it could be any university with a specialization in space science.
  • I would like to eat an orange.
    “orange” is a countable noun that is singular and nonspecific. It could be any orange.

“A” is used when the noun begins with a consonant sound.

  • a novel
  • a table
  • a university

“An” is used when the noun begins with a vowel sound.

  • an eraser
  • an apple
  • an MMA fighter (“MMA” starts with a consonant, but the first sound is /Ɛ/ or a short “e” sound. Therefore, “an” instead of “a” is used.)

“a” or “an” can be used the first time a noun is mentioned. Subsequently, the article “the” is used.

  • Sasha wants to live in a big houseThe house should have at least four bedrooms, one guest room, one living room, and three bathrooms.

Exception: Vowels

  • Words that begin with an h sound often require an a (as in a horse, a history book, a hotel),
  • but if an h-word begins with an actual vowel sound, use an an (as in an hour, an honor). We would say a useful device and a union matter because the u of those words actually
  • sounds like yoo (as opposed, say, to the u of an ugly incident).
  • The same is true of a European and a Euro (because of that consonantal “Yoo” sound).
  • We would say a once-in-a-lifetime experience or a one-time hero because the words once and one begin with a w sound (as if they were spelled wuntz and won).

Do we say an FBI agent or a FBI agent? Although “F” is obviously a consonant and we would precede any word that begins with “F” with “a,” we precede FBI with “an” because the first sound we make when we say FBI is not an “f- sound,” it is an “eff-sound.”

Thus we say we’re going to a PTO meeting where an NCO will address us. We say we saw a UFO because, although the abbreviation begins with a ‘U,” we pronounce the “U” as if it were spelled “yoo.”

Whether we say an URL or a URL depends on whether we pronounce it as “earl” or as “u*r*l.”

Use of “The”

“the” is a definite article. It can be used with both singular and plural countable and uncountable nouns.

  • The book that I read last night was great.
    “book” is a singular, countable noun. It is also specific due to the phrase “that I read last night”
  • The books referred for this lecture are quite helpful.
    “books” is plural, countable noun. It is also specific due to the phrase “for this lecture.”
  • The advice John gave me was very useful.
    “advice” is an uncountable noun. But, it is specific due to the phrase “John gave me.”

Some specific rules:
“The” is used in the following categories of proper nouns:

  • Museums and art galleriesthe Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Art
  • Buildingsthe Empire State Building, the Willis Tower
  • Seas and oceansthe Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean
  • Rivers: the Mississippi, the Nile
  • Desertsthe Sahara Desert, the Sonora Desert
  • Periods and events in history: the Dark Ages, the Civil War
  • Bridges: the London Bridge, the Mackinac Bridge
  • Parts of a countrythe South, the Upper Midwest

In general, use “the” with plural proper nouns.

  • the Great Lakes
  • the French
  • the Rockies (as in the Rocky Mountains)

“The” is often used with proper nouns that include an “of” phrase.

  • the United States of America
  • the University of Minnesota
  • the International Swimming Hall of Fame

Use “the” when the noun being referred to is unique because of our understanding of the world.

  • The Earth moves around the sun.
  • Wolves howl at the moon.

Use “the” when a noun can be made specific from a previous mention in the text. This is also known as second or subsequent mention.

  • My son bought a cat. I am looking after the cat while he is on vacation.
  • I read a good book. The book was about how to use articles correctly in English.

“The” is used with superlative adjectives, which are necessarily unique (the first, the second, the biggest, the smallest, the next, the only, etc.).

  • It was the first study to address the issue.
  • She was the weakest participant.
  • He was the only person to drop out of the study.
No Article (Generic Reference)

if the noun is countable and plural (e.g.., “research studies”) or uncountable (e.g., “information”) and it is being used in a nonspecific or generic way, no article is used. Here are some more specifics:

No article is used when a plural countable noun is generic or nonspecific.

    • I bought new pens and pencils at the store. (general, not specific ones)
    • Cats have big eyes that can see in the dark. (cats in general, all of them)
    • Babies cry a lot. (babies in general, all of them)

No article is used when a noncount noun is generic or nonspecific.

    • I bought milk and rice at the store. (generic reference)
    • We were assigned homework in this class. (generic reference)
    • There has been previous research on the topic. (generic reference)
Articles in Phrases and Idiomatic Expressions

Sometimes article usage in English does not follow a specific rule. These expressions must be memorized instead. Here are some examples of phrases where article usage is not predictable:

  • Destinations: go to the store, go to the bankbut go to school, go to church, go to bed, go home
  • Locations: in school, at home, in bed, but in the hospital (in American English)
  • Parts of the day: in the morning, in the evening, but at night
  • Chores: mow the lawn, do the dishes, do the cleaning

There are also numerous idiomatic expressions in English that contain nouns. Some of these also contain articles while others do not. Here are just a few examples:

  • To give someone a hand
  • In the end
  • To be on time
How to improve IELTS Writing Score

Write more in English: Try keeping a diary or journal in English. Any practice can help you. Write more, and you will discover more common grammar mistakes you make.

Subscribe IELTS Writing Correction Service: Practicing without feedback will not result in much improvement. The best way is to buy a writing correction service for IELTS, so that you get detailed feedback on your answers and mistakes. This was you can improve much faster. See our affordable writing correction service for academic and general IELTS. 

Practice Makes Perfect
Practicing your writing as much as possible will help, but unless you review your work or get a teacher to check it, then you are basically going to make the same mistakes over and over again. What to do? Write – read – correct- write – read – correct. Once you have finished writing a paragraph, go back and read it again before writing more.

Courses to improve your IELTS Writing Score

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