When to Use 'A,' 'An,' or 'The'

There are several exceptions, or more complicated situations than the char below covers. Below we have laid out some of the general and specific rules about using A, AN, and THE.

Remember, in order to use A, AN, and THE properly, you must know whether or not a noun is a Count or Non-Count Noun. (A count noun is the name of something that can be counted: one book, two books, three books. A non-count noun is the name of something that cannot be counted: milk, flour, freedom, justice).

 

<trvalign="top">General RulesUse "a" or "an" with a singular count noun when you mean "one of many," "any," "in general."

  • Bob is a student (one of many students).
  • I like a good movie (one of many movies).

Use "the" with any noun when the meaning is specific; for example, when the noun names the only one (or one) of a kind.

  • Adam was the first man (the only 'first man').
  • New York is the largest city in the United States (only one city can be 'the largest').
  • We live on the earth (the only Earth we know).
  • Have you heard the news (specific news)?

Don't Use "a," "an," or "the" with a non-count noun when you mean "any," "in general."

  • We believe in love (in general).
  • He gave me information (not specific).

Names of Cities and States

Use "a" or "an" Use "the" Don't Use "a," "an," or "the"
Use "a" or "an" the first time you use a noun in a paragraph.
  • I saw a movie last night.
  • A man ran into the street.
Use "the" the second time you use that same noun in the same paragraph.
  • I saw a movie last night. The movie was entertaining.
  • A man ran into the street. A car hit the man.
Don't Use "a," "an," or "the" with a plural count noun when you mean "some of many things," "any," "in general."
  • Movies are entertaining (some movies; movies in general).
  • She likes men (in general).
Title Use "a" or "an" if the title is not a specific title.
  • a president
  • a doctor
  • a queen
Use "the" if a specific person has a title or if only one person has a title.
  • the president
  • the doctor
  • the Queen of England
Don't Use "a," "an," or "the" if the person's name is given.
  • President Kennedy
  • Dr. Yang
  • Queen Elizabeth
Names of Countries Non-specific
  • a country
Use "the" if the name of the country is plural or indicates a group (of states, islands, etc.)
  • the United States
  • the Netherlands
  • the Philippines
Don't Use "a," "an," or "the"
  • Russia
  • South Africa
  • Holland
  • Canada
  • Great Britain
  • England
Names of Continents Non-specific
  • a continent
  Don't Use "a," "an," or "the"
  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Europe
  • North America
Names of Some Geographical Areas   Use "the"
  • the South Pole
  • the West
  • the South
  • the North East
Don't Use "a," "an," or "the"
  • Western Europe
Non-specific
  • a city
  • a state
  Don't Use "a," "an," or "the"
  • New York
  • Paris
  • Washington
Exception:
  • the District of Columbia
Names of Streets  Don't Use "a," "an," or "the"
  • Pennsylvania Avenue
  • Fourth Street
  • Florida Avenue
Names of Oceans, Rivers, Seas, Deserts, Forests, Canals Use a/an for non-specific
  • an ocean
  • a river
  • a sea
  • a desert
Use "the"
  • the Pacific Ocean
  • the Mediterranean Sea
  • the Potomac River
  • the C & O Canal
  • the Atlantic Ocean
  • the Painted Desert
 
Names of Lakes Non-specific
  • a lake
  Don't Use "a," "an," or "the"
  • Lake Ontario
  • Lake Geneva
Names of Monuments, Memorials, Parks, and National Shrines Use a/an if you write about a non-specific building or monument.
  • a building
  • a museum
  • an institution
Use "the"
  • the Capitol
  • the White House
  • the Senate Office Building
  • the Sam Rayburn Building
  • the National Archives
  • the Library of Congress
  • the National Gallery of Art
  • the Smithsonian Institute
 
Names of Colleges, Universities, and Other Schools Use a/an for non-specific colleges or schools.
  • a school
  • a university
Use "the" if the title of the school has "of" or "for" in it.
  • the University of Maryland
  • the Catholic University of America
  • the Maryland School for the Deaf
  • The Model Secondary School for the Deaf
Don't Use "a," "an," or "the" if the school is named for a person or place.
  • Gallaudet University
  • Harvard University
  • George Washington University
  • Georgetown University
  • Maryland University
  • Catholic University
Names of Buildings on Gallaudet University Campus Use a/an for non-specific buildings.
  • a dorm
  • an office
Use the with specific places that have no names.
  • the infirmary
  • the library
  • the dorm
  • the cafeteria
  • the bookstore
Don't Use "a," "an," or "the" if a building on campus is named for a person.
  • Peet Hall
  • Ely Center
  • Dawes House
  • Krug Hall
  • Hall Memorial Building
  • Hughes Gymnasium
  • Merrill Learning Center
  • Kendall School

 


 

If you are not sure what article to use with a noun, use the basic questions on the following chart as a guide. Here below are the example of Article; and for your information, in each details as well as sentence example, the group of (black) bold word(s) that use article word. It is also the group of underline that shows no article used.

 

Frank bought a new car with an old engine.

Questions Guides Examples
1. Common/Proper:
Is it a common noun or a proper noun?
> It is a proper noun > Singular uses no article > Tom Smith is here with his wife.
Plural uses the > The Smiths are here.

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It is a common noun

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2. General/Specific:
Does the reader know which thing(s) you mean?
> Yes, the reader knows (specific) > Singular uses the > The sun is bright.
Plural uses the > I like the shoes you are wearing.

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No, the reader does not know (general)

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3. Count/ Non-Count:
Can the noun be counted in English?
> Yes, it is countable > Singular uses a, an >
Plural uses no article > Books can be fun to read.

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No, it is not countable (It is a Non-Count Noun) > Non-Count Nouns can use either way: no article, or some > Americans enjoy freedom and liberty.
> I would like some water.