Articles – An Introduction

Articles are a special case of demonstrative determiners or demonstrative adjectives that assign specificity to a noun or pronoun. Like any other determiner or adjective, articles are used exclusively for nouns, and are influenced by them alone, save for some examples where an adjective precedes a noun.

At the end of this article, the reader will be able to:

  • Understand the concept of vowel, vowel sounds, consonant and consonant sounds
  • Understand and apply the basic articles to nouns and determine whether a noun needs an article
  • Examine the influence of other adjectives on the usage of articles

Vowels and Consonants

Vowels are defined as those phonetics which on pronunciation, doesn’t use the tongue of the speaker (the tongue remains stationary and doesn’t reach for the lips or the roof of the mouth). Consonants require the speaker to do the opposite; use the tongue while speaking. In the English alphabet, there are five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and the rest are consonants.

Thus the nouns astronaut, armature, emblem, engagement, island, iron, octopus, outsider, uncertainty, underling, etc. begin with a vowel. The nouns like standard, vacation, procedure, etc. begin with a consonant.

Some nouns begin with a vowel and yet have a consonant sound. Take for example nouns like euro, uniform, university, unicorn, etc. begin with consonant sounds ‘yoo’ and nouns like one begin with consonant sound ‘von’. Thus these nouns, though beginning literally with a vowel, phonetically and effectively begin with a consonant.

Some words begin with a consonant and yet have a vowel sound. Take for example words like honour, hour, honest, etc. begin with vowel sounds ‘a’. The first letter of these words is silent, making the second letter (a vowel) the actual first letter of the word. Thus these words, though beginning literally with a consonant, phonetically and effectively begin with a vowel.

While using articles before words, it is necessary for us to identify whether it begins with a vowel or consonant sound.

The basic Articles: ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘the’, and their usage

Articles are of two main types [1]: Definite and Indefinite

In this article we explore the use of articles. Observe the following example:

  • English is a language of the English.

We observe three different cases in the above sentence. The first noun ‘English’ is an example of the language and refers to all adaptations and variants of the language. It is a generic mention to the entire language and thus doesn’t need an article. The second noun ‘language’ here refers to one of all language but the noun language itself doesn’t specify which one. Hence this noun, being unspecific needs an indefinite article ‘a’. The third noun ‘English’ refers to a particular set of people and is specific. Hence this noun, being specific needs a definite article ‘an’. Let us define definite and indefinite articles.

Definite articles

Definite articles are those that refer to a specific noun in the speech. Definite articles are used to refer to a particular common noun of its kind.

In the English language, ‘the’ is the only example of a definite article. We use it in the following examples:

  • The defence counsel has a strong alibi for the accused.
  • Stand by the red lever and wait for my call.
  • Make sure the Fuhrer is not disturbed.
  • Find a way to make the countdown stop.
  • The openers are going through a tough time.
  • You’ve to seek permission from the director.

Indefinite articles

Indefinite articles are those that refer to all the common nouns of its kind. There are two indefinite articles ‘an’ & ‘a’. We use them in the following examples:

Using the article a

  • A good batsman reads the ball and the pitch. A great batsman also reads the bowler.
  • Don’t you have a lecture now?
  • He is carrying a gun.
  • Grab a pen from the case on your way here.
  • I had a great day at the office.
  • A bike is a rare sight in this neighbourhood. People either buy a car or get a cab.

Using the article an

  • I need to buy an umbrella.
  • This is an experiment to test your motor skills.
  • The firm won’t be able to sustain an embezzlement.
  • An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
  • He kept looking for an opening while the others gave up.
  • Only an express fast delivery will make it to him in time.

The articles ‘a’ & ‘an’ are used before consonant and vowel sounds respectively. In the previous section we discussed the difference between vowels and vowel sounds, and the same for consonants and consonant sounds. Let’s apply that to some unusual examples here:

Consonant sounds created by vowels

  • If I’m going to war, I’ll need a uniform.
  • The council needs to present a unified stance.
  • Enter a one-time password for access.

In each of the above examples, the pronunciation of the first syllable of the word following the article begins with a consonant sound like ‘yoo’ or ‘won’, prompting the use of the article ‘a’.

Vowel sounds created by silencing the consonants

  • Give me an hour to finish this task.
  • I need an honest answer from you.
  • He was an honourable officer.

In each of the above examples, the first letter of the word following the article is silenced. Thus the pronunciation of the word effectively begins with a vowel sound ‘a’, prompting the use of the article ‘an’.

Adjectives before Nouns

In most cases, we need to place an article before a noun that already has a descriptive adjective. For that we verify the initial sound of the adjective and not the noun. Depending on whether the adjective begins with a vowel sound or consonant sound, we assign an article to that noun. Some examples include:

  • Do you have a shorter description of this topic?
  • I need an honest answer from you.
  • We need a stable economy to implement this scheme.
  • The council needs to present a unified stance.
  • He was an honourable officer.

In each of the above examples, it’s the adjective that determines the particular article and not the noun, though the noun assists in determining whether we need either of an indefinite or a definite article.

Thus an adjective before a noun influences the article placed before the noun.

Conclusion

This covers the idea of the types and implementation of articles.

Notes

[1] The word no in English language can be used as a third type of article called negative articles. Examples include:

  • No man has ever been able to set foot on Mars.
  • No nation has been able to successfully establish contact with the Sentinelese of Andaman islands.
  • No one is available to make the delivery.