Many languages have definite and indefinite articles and some languages use these words differently to the way they are used in English. As such, these can actually be pretty confusing for English learners. People from some countries – like those Russian-speaking places – tend to struggle with this because there is no such system in their native language. When it comes to IELTS, you need to make the effort to use articles correctly in your sentences. It may seem difficult at first, but if you follow the rules for their use, you will soon be speaking and writing with fluency. There are only three words that fit into the category of articles, and these tiny words are among the most used in the English language and certainly should be used correctly in your exam. Here you can see the articles we have in English.

Article Examples of Use
Definite articlethethe dog the egg the hour the hotel
Indefinite articleaa dog a hotel
Indefinite article (for vowels)anan egg an hour

What are DEFINITE and INDEFINITE ARTICLES and why are they important?

While it is certainly true that you can make yourself understood without using definite and indefinite articles, once you incorporate them into your English language usage, you will begin to think and express yourself with exactness. You will convince your examiners and people in general that you and they understand exactly what you are referring to. Also, the use of definite and indefinite articles in speech and in writing has a positive effect upon the person receiving your communication.

Once you have mastered the use of articles, you will begin to notice new arrivals to English-speaking may not include these elements in their sentence structure.

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There is just one definite article in English, and it is the word the. It is the most frequently used word in the English language.

There are two indefinite articles in the English language that we will discuss here, and those words are a and an. (In the plural form, we can use the indefinite article some, but that is for a later discussion.)

How to Choose the Correct Article Form – Definite or Indefinite?

Definite and indefinite articles appear before a noun (naming word) to explain to the reader or listener if that noun is particular and defined, or not. These words enable the speaker or writer to correctly communicate to the listener or reader exactly which object or thing the speaker or writer is referring to. For example:

  • the doctor
  • a doctor
  • an emergency room (we cannot say ‘an’ because ‘doctor’ does not start with a vowel sound)

If you are telling me about something, I will need to know if you are referring to one particular thing or if you are referring to just any thing. In other words, you are defining to me which thing you are talking about. The following example sentences will explain:

  • I will phone the doctor.

Here, I will phone one particular doctor, and that person’s name is, let’s say, Dr Smith.

  • I will phone a doctor.

In this sentence, I will phone any doctor who is available to see me.

  • You may have the apple from the fruit dish.

In this example, there is only one apple and one fruit dish and you absolutely know the exact apple you may have.

  • You may have an apple from the fruit dish.

In this sentence, there are several apples to choose from in one fruit dish, and you may choose any one of the apples from that fruit dish.

Whereas a and an are used only for nouns that can be individually counted, some nouns are able to be collectively countable.

The definite article the can also be used for a group of items to determine a particular group, as in the following sentence:

  • We drove to the mountains for a picnic.

In this case, we did not drive to just any mountains, but to a particular group of mountains.

The definite article the is used before every singular noun and most plural nouns. I hope you agree that there is no decision you need to make in relation to definite articles. Easy!

How to Use Indefinite Articles

The indefinite article, a or an, requires a little more thought. If you look at the list of examples at the top of this lesson, you will see that some nouns take a, and some take an. Both a and an have the same use and meaning. There are just a couple of things to know to enable you to make the correct decision as to which one to use.

Those nouns that have a consonant sound at the beginning (dog, doctor, hotel) require the indefinite article a before them: a dog, a doctor, a hotel.

The nouns that have a vowel sound at the beginning (egg, elephant, apple) take the indefinite an before it: an egg, an elephant, an apple. The reason for this is that it is just too awkward to say those words beginning with a vowel sound with the a sound before them. Try it and you will see.

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There are some other words that start with a vowel sound but that sound is not a vowel letter. I understand you might find this confusing, but stay with me and we will unravel it. The words that I refer to here also need the vowel form indefinite article, an:

  • It is an historical event.
  • An hour has passed since lunchtime.

In these cases, “historical” sounds more like “istorical” because we do not pronounce the “h”, so it is treated as beginning with a vowel. The word “hour” sounds like “our” because we again do not pronounce the letter “h”, so it takes the an indefinite article. Try saying them with the wrong indefinite article and you will see that it sounds awkward and clunky.

Likewise, we use a with vowels that are actually consonant sounds:

  • We need to find a user to test this game.

Here, “user” sounds like it begins with a “y.” Again, try saying that sentence using the incorrect indefinite article and you will see that it sounds absolutely wrong.

In shortened form names like UNESCO (short for United Nationals Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), where the first letter is a vowel, the indefinite article a is used. In this case, as in “user” above, the beginning “U” letter sounds like a “y”.

  • I want to hear a UNESCO speech.

This “y” sound also occurs with some words that begin with “E,” such as “Europe” and “euphoria” and “euphemism.” We would say, for example:

  • France is a European country.

In these situations, you should let the sound guide you as to which indefinite article is correct. Sometimes it pays to say the word or sentence to yourself out loud, so that you can hear the sound and then more easily make the correct decision. If you read and listen to English often, you will intuitively understand that something is wrong when you say “an European country” or “a hour ago.”

Practice, practice, practice

The best way to develop the habit of using definite and indefinite articles is to read and listen to native English speakers, including watching, but more importantly, listening to TV and podcasts. Notice the use of definite and indefinite article usage in newspaper stories, in magazines and in books. Watch movies, preferably with the subtitles displayed. Note to yourself which articles are being used. You can press ‘pause’ on movies and say the sentence out loudly yourself. This is called “active listening.”

When you are working with a speaking partner or teacher, you can ask them to correct your article use for you. A good teacher or partner will give subtle feedback by reformulating your language thusly:

TEACHER: Tell me about a place you would like to visit one day.

STUDENT: I would like to go to Paris. It is in France, which is an European country.

TEACHER: Yes, France is a European country.

Test your knowledge

Write down some simple sentences using the definite article, the. Then write the same sentences replacing the definite article for the indefinite article a or an. Think about how the meaning of the sentence has changed. This change may seem to be a small difference, but it can make a very big difference indeed. Imagine the difference it might make in business and legal communications where exactness is vitally important!

You can find various article use tests online at most big grammar website, and I have also included my own one below.

Difficulties with articles

There are a few things that make articles challenging. The above rules are simple, but there are exceptions to them, or rules that contravene them. For example, when we are talking about music, we almost always use the definite article, the, before the name of an instrument. I would always say something like,

  • She plays the drums.
  • I play the piano.
  • We all play the guitar.

Of course, this is in opposition to the rules stated above. Drums, pianos, and guitars are all just one of a possible group of items, but when we talk about them in English, we say “the ___” as though it was the only one that existed.

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On a similar note, we also talk about certain things as “the ___” even when there are multiple ones, simply because the speaker and listener both know what is being referred to. Look at the following sentences.

  • Let’s take a walk by the sea this weekend.
  • Did you see the moon last night?
  • The sun always burns my skin at this time of day.

Of course, there is more than one sea, moon, and sun in the universe. Really, we should say “take a walk by a sea” or “see a moon” but this sounds really weird. Realistically, the speaker and listener are both thinking about the same sea and all the people on Earth are familiar with the same moon and sun, so there should be little confusion when we say “the ____.”

When to not use an article

Oftentimes, we just don’t need an article at all. It is hard to describe that because it is just in the absence of any real need for an article. If there is no single object, then there will be no article to introduce it. When we think of nouns we think of their countability, or put more simply, their ability to be counted.

Articles come before nouns (or before the adjective that modifies the noun) and so if you are not using a noun then you don’t need an article. Similarly, they refer to either one definite thing or one out of a possible group of things. We can use “the” to refer to a definite group, so it does handle multiple items sometimes, but if we refer to them generally rather than specifically, we don’t need an article. Also, if the noun is non-countable, then we do not need an article.

For example:

  • The education is important in society. 
  • Education is important in society.

The word “education” is not (in this sense) countable, so we cannot use “the.” Also, we are talking about it very generally and non-specifically, so we cannot use any sort of article.

Here is another example:

  • The professor did a research on productivity.
  • The professor did research on productivity.

Again, “research” is not countable. We cannot say “one research” or “two researches.” As such, it was not possible to say “a research”. In this case, we just cannot use an article.

Sometimes, not using an article is simply a quirk of the language or of the particular circumstances, as in this case:

  • “I’ll have orange juice thanks”, she said to the server.

The server would understand that the person ordering orange juice wants a glass of orange juice. It is implied that one glass of orange juice is required. “Orange juice” would be listed on the menu. It is unlikely that “one glass of orange juice” would be in the menu listing, and similarly with most food items on a restaurant menu.

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The Importance of Articles for IELTS

By now, you should more or less understand how to use articles in English. There is a test below that I would like you to do, but first of all I will discuss why articles are important for IELTS.

The most important thing is that IELTS is an English exam. People actually forget this fact and think about it as just a test that can be figured out. However, the examiner is listening for signs that you can speak and understand English well. Articles are one of the things that prove this.

If you use articles perfectly in the writing test, I suspect you will get a good score. There are many factors that govern success, but grammar is really important for IELTS writing. If you can avoid those big mistakes, you will stand a good chance of scoring highly. However, if you make errors with articles, I seriously cannot imagine you scoring more than band 6.5.

The same is largely true for speaking but here small grammatical errors may be overlooked because the meaning can still be conveyed quite precisely. If the examiner asked you, “What do you like to do on weekends?” and you replied, “I like to go to cinema,” this would be a mistake. In English, we must say “the cinema.” In IELTS speaking, you might get away with this because it is a small omission that the examiner may not hear or note. But for IELTS writing, it is more important.

Articles also give us clues to meaning and so it is possible that you may benefit in the reading or listening test from an advanced understanding of their rules. Subtle differences may cause the answer to be B instead of D, for example.

Test

Ok folks, let’s test your knowledge! You can try to fill in the blanks for these fourteen questions and then check your answers below.

Fill in the blanks below with either a, an, the, or no article. The answers are listed below.

  1. She bought him ___ cup of coffee.
  2. It is very important for children to learn ___ discipline.
  3. Can you imagine a country without ___ leader?
  4. ___ fastest man in the world is slower than a horse.
  5. When we went to Paris, we saw ___ Eiffel Tower.
  6. It is good to make ___ friend when you go to a new school.
  7. Teachers deserve to be paid ___ good salary.
  8. Did you see ___ end of that movie?
  9. I’ll never understand ___ economics.
  10. I wonder if I will get ___ last piece of the cake…
  11. Is it wise to eat ___ eel at bedtime?
  12. It is ___ honour to be your teacher.
  13. We’re having ___ chicken and ___ chips for dinner.
  14. I want to go to ___ USA concert.

Answers

  1. a (this could be “the” if we previously referred to the cup, but it is unlikely)
  2. x (no article is needed)
  3. a
  4. The
  5. the
  6. a
  7. a
  8. the
  9. x (no article is needed)
  10. the
  11. an
  12. an
  13. x x (no articles needed)
  14. a

Get Your Writing Corrected

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