Could you suggest a comprehensive textbook or academic research study that covers all the cases of using articles (a/an and the) in English? I'm having trouble finding a detailed and well-reasoned explanation on this topic.

I've already read several specialized books on English grammar that focus on articles, such as Murphy's, Hewings', and Biber's, but none of them provide a comprehensive list of situations in which "a/an" or "the" should be used.

While I understand that "the" can be used to create a sense of suspense in, for example, novels (e.g. "Day had dawned cold and gray when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail" - even if it was the first appearance of this man), this case is not covered in the books I've read. Also, it is not clear why the article before "Day" is omitted, and I suspect it may be for stylistic reasons, but this detail is not covered in the mentioned resources.

And this is only one case, I'm sure there are a lot of nuances. So this question is not about this specific sentence, it's about which sources I can use.


1 Answer 1


Most grammar books will give examples of determiners (the, a/an) in utterances or sentences. Most (in my experience and no, I have not checked all of them) will not discuss what happens in a sequence of utterances.

So, first, you just have to remember that the is specific and a is not:

  • Day had dawned cold and gray when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail. [He has already been mentioned in the text.]
  • Day had dawned cold and gray when a man turned aside from the main Yukon trail". The man has not been previously mentioned.

This first mention followed by a second mention is a standard part of grammar in English:

  • I have a large dog. The dog is a mastiff.
  • Yes, John does have a small car. The car is a Volkwagen Beetle.

That is one of the most usual uses: Moving from a something to a the something. It is also logical so the omission in most "grammars" of how and when this happens still does not infringe the basic pattern of using "a" then "the" as moving from the non-specific to the specific. Most grammar authors probably do not even realize this is a problem for non-English speakers. One encounters this with English learners. English speakers just make the transition without even thinking.

Also, day and night can be used without determiners. As can seasons of the year, times (at times) and days of the week (there may be a few others like this):

  • Night fell swiftly in the desert.
  • Autumn came in early October.
  • Summer at the beach is fun.
  • Five o'clock was such an early time to start.
  • Monday is always a bitch.

Non-use of determiners like the ones above are included in most good, advanced English teaching books.

So, one needs to draw up a list of the most used cases from the books one has and then the exceptions and the first point I made above.

  • Thank you. I find it interesting that 'day and night' and other examples can be used without determiners. Does this mean that there are no rules governing the use of determiners in these cases, and that it's up to the writer's discretion? Also (it can be useful for someone) - I found very good reference work with details about articles: "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language" by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik, but I haven’t finished it yet.
    – omavel
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 21:34
  • @omavel No, it does not mean that at all. Every noun in English can potentially have a determiner in the framework of something general versus something specific: Autumn is a great time of year. An autumn with few sunny days is not something I like. The autumn he was here was very rainy.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 21:50
  • Okay, but this case is covered by every source.
    – omavel
    Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 15:39
  • I answered your question under my answer in my comment above. [Does this mean that there are no rules governing the use of determiners in these cases?] I said no, and why. But I now assume you already had the answer and I see no reason for you to then say "Okay, but this case is covered by every source".
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 15:44
  • 1
    It would be very hard to come up with an exhaustive list. I talk about some of the other uses of the definite article in this answer from several years ago.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 17:46
  • @J.R. I specifically wanted to cover a pragmatic example and not a grammatical one.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 18:01
  • Nitpicking: the OP asks for a book that goes into minute detail (comprehensive list and nuances). I know of no such book, as articles can sometimes be omitted at the author's discretion or purpose. If such a volume existed, it would be incredibly boring :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 8:48
  • @Mari-LouA People say they are looking for help. But somehow, it always ends up a pissing match. [that is a perfectly acceptable idiom].
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 15:33
  • @Mari-LouA Just to nitpick your nitpick . . . OP alternatively asked for an "academic research study", and those often ARE incredibly boring! Commented Jul 30, 2023 at 4:56

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .