I have been trying hard to understand how to use articles correctly. I read several English grammar books but they mostly provide only 5-6 rules for article usage. However, when I try to understand why an author used a, the or no article in a text, I have no idea where to look for it.

I am aware that it is very difficult to define specific rules of all article uses, but millions of English learners have the same problem every year. One can find here and there different rules for articles, but I am wondering why should not we create the most comprehensive guide here for article usage, which the large community can contribute to and millions of people can use it as the best guide for articles.

  • @flumperious The question is in someways related to mine, but it is more about flowchart and algorithms to automatically detect a correct article. I aim here to have similar rules as they are defined in grammar books, but more comprehensive and with many different cases. – SVANSKI May 9 at 18:27
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    In SE terms, I think you are suggesting that we write a “canonical” post about articles, similar to the What is the perfect and when should I use it post. It probably would make more sense to start that effort on [meta] then migrate it to the main site after it was relatively complete. – ColleenV May 10 at 15:59
  • I think a good place to start might be to collect the best questions and answers we currently have on ELL about articles. That will make it easier for us to see what sorts of things we should put in the guide. – ColleenV May 13 at 19:31
  • @ColleenV thanks for migrating my post here. I think it could be very interesting to create many case studies (e.g. text from BBC) and explain there why each article was used. Since in the text will be many different ways how articles were used, we can summarise all rules in a post and just link to these rules every time. This would enable us to grow our "database" of rules and have many case studies where English learners can really understand how articles in real text are used. What do you think? – SVANSKI May 14 at 12:29
  • Don’t thank me - I’m pretty sure it was one of the moderators :) I don’t think writing a lot of new case studies would be the best course. We already have hundreds of questions that cover the situations that learners find most confusing. It would be nice if we could bring all of those already written explanations into one guide. – ColleenV May 14 at 17:30
  • I don't understand. You have five or six rules and then do not know how an author uses it. A few examples would help. So, this supposed author uses something not covered by those rules? Please provide an example. Some of this involves practice. It could be that you are not used to seeing some article with some noun and that it may be covered by one of the rules. By the way, the same problem exists for Slavic language speakers in all Romance languages, too., though slightly differently. – Lambie Jun 4 at 20:15

I’m interested in contributing to the canonical post. As a non-native speaker, the English articles have always been a trouble and I can understand why non-native speakers cannot wrap their heads around them.

If we are really going to write a canonical post, I would like to suggest a few topics that might be worth talking into account.

When talking about articles, we'll inevitably be talking about noun and noun phrases (and by extension countability, definiteness, identifiability etc.). Therefore, I believe the best place to start is the basic structure and the semantics of the noun phrase (NP).


An NP in general comprises a head noun and followed or preceded by modifiers. Usually there's only one head, which is virtually always a noun. The modifiers can be adjectives, relative clauses, or prepositional phrases. An NP usually has a determiner, which always precedes rather than follows the head noun. The tree diagram below shows the basic structure of an NP. This is from Huddeston & Pullum (2005), which has its own way of labeling each node. Every node is labelled with both function and category: function:category.

enter image description here

An NP has a special slot for determiners, which have their own structure and ordering. In some grammars (eg. that of Quirk et al., 1985), determiners may be divided into three categories, namely, pre-determiners, central determiners, and post-determiners. The figure bellow shows the basic structure of the determiners:

enter image description here

Articles fall within the central category. Central determiners are mutually exclusive; therefore, *the an apple is ungrammatical.


According to Dixon (2005: 82), there are at least three types of meaning associated the grammatical class of noun: viz. CONCRETE – girl, horse, wrist, ABSTRACT – time, future, yesterday, STATES – pleasure, joy, strength, ACTIVITIES – decision, war, game, and SPEECH ACTS – question, order, report.

Semantic classification of noun is important because it can determine the countability of the noun. For example, STATE nouns seldom have a plural form and therefore do not normally occur with the articles ‘a’ or ‘an’, eg. *a jealousy.


The definite article The basically pre-empts the ‘which’ question. It indicates that the head of the NP is considered sufficient in the context to identify the referent. Look at these sentences from Huddleston & Pullum (2005),

i [The President of France] has appointed a new prime minister.
ii Where did you put [the key]?

In [i], there can only be one person to become President of France at a given time. Therefore, it uniquely identifies that person. In [ii], there can be any number of keys that might exist, but the article The is used because it is clear which key is referred to (eg. The car to the key you just told me to unload).

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    I haven't finished this but I'm gonna continue tomorrow. I need sleep :P – user178049 May 15 at 8:46
  • STATE nouns do have plurals, but the plurals refer to different reasons for the state. This is similar to how mass nouns work. A "cup of flour" is "some flour"; whereas "some flours" refers to various kinds of flour. Similarly, "some strengths of StackExchange" are various good features of StackExchange. Unlike mass nouns, STATE nouns are usually measured using intensity, instead of by volume, weight, or size. – Jasper May 16 at 7:11
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    This is a really good start. We have Markdown support for tables now, so I think we should use that instead of images of tables. – ColleenV May 18 at 14:08
  • With all due respect, I am not sure you need to define an NP. Single words are considered nouns phrases in linguistics but in terms of learners that does not help at all. The problem generally revolves around these uses for countable nouns: Apples are good for you. An apple a day is good for you. The apple is a wondrous fruit. The apple on the table is mine. It's generally not more complicated than that. In terms of single sentences that about covers it. Then, there is the switch from A to The. So, personally, I would start with: Subject [noun] + predicate. – Lambie Jun 4 at 20:26

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