The Grammar of Articles and The Crown Jewels

Written by: Larry Walder



Time to read 5 min

Articles can be an unexpectedly tricky aspect of English Grammar. In theory, English ‘articles’ should be relatively easy to teach and equally easy for students to learn and remember. Yet often even quite advanced students of English make basic errors with articles. Why is this?

In this blog, we will begin with a definition of what articles are and then try to explain their use in greater detail. After that, we will address some of the obstacles that might hinder students’ ability to learn, remember and use them correctly. Finally, in the download, you will find a topical text, related to the coronation of King Charles III, that can be used as a TEFL/ESOL worksheet to revise articles.


The = Definite Article

A or An = Indefinite Article

Most dictionaries, grammar and exercise books give their own definition of articles. The one found on the Butte College web page seems to cover the main points succinctly; “articles are used before nouns or noun equivalents and are a type of adjective. The definite article (the) is used before a noun to indicate that the identity of the noun is known to the reader (or speaker). The indefinite article (a, an) is used before a noun that is general or when its identity is not known.”

This may be correct enough but sounds a bit abstract. Let’s look at how articles work in practice.

The Definite Article (THE)

The definite article limits the meaning of a noun to one particular thing. Here are some examples;-

  • Here is the book I was telling you about. (I wasn’t telling you about any other books, so you know the only one I could mean).

  • The story is set in the United States. (The one story described in the book. The only place in the world called the United States).

  • The main character is the President of the country. (There may be other characters, but I am only referring to the principle one here. There is only one President of the country we are referring to).

  • The author of the book has a lot of experience in politics. (There is only one writer of the particular book we are discussing).

In texts and speech, the definite article is used when something is spoken about for the first time. After that, the indefinite article is often used to show that the thing you are referring to is one among several or many options. For example;- “Here is the book I was telling you about. It is a book I have read many times.”

Other Uses of The Definite Article

  • When something is unique, singular or universal we generally use the definite article. For example, The sun, The moon, The world, The Universe, The Atlantic Ocean, The Eiffel Tower, and The Himalayas. (For example; The moon orbits around the Earth).

  • The definite article is used before superlative adjectives such as the best, the most, the biggest, the tallest… (For example; This is the best pizza I have ever eaten).

  • When referring to nationalities as groups of people we use the definite article, for example, The French, The British or The Chinese. (For example; The French are well known for food and fine dining).

  • Services or Systems often begin with the definite article, for example; The police, The Fire Brigade, and the rules of the game.

As you are reading through this you will probably be thinking there are some exceptions to these uses, and you would be correct! For example, we don’t say the Mount Everest although we do say The Matterhorn. It is difficult to list all the possible exceptions until you come to them. Hence the confusion our students sometimes feel!

The Indefinite Article (A or AN)

The indefinite article can have two forms. We use a when it precedes a word that begins with a consonant. We use an when it precedes a word that begins with a vowel. The indefinite article indicates that a noun refers to a general idea rather than a particular thing. For example, you might ask your friend, “Can I borrow a pen?” Your friend will understand that you are not asking about a specific pen, rather, any pen will do. The indefinite article only appears with singular nouns.

Indefinite Article Exceptions

There are a few exceptions to the general rule of using a before words that start with consonants and an before words that begin with vowels. For example, the first letter of the word honour is a consonant, but it’s unpronounced. Phonetically the word honour begins with a vowel sound. Therefore, we use an. Similarly, when the first letter of a word is a vowel but is pronounced with a consonant sound, use a, as in the previously stated example “He is a United States politician.” This is also true for acronyms and when using initials, for example;- an LCD display, a UK-based company, an HR department, a URL.

Obstacles to learning articles

Difficulties with learning and correctly using articles fall into two main categories, seeming inconsistencies in the correct usage and interference from the learner’s first language. Let’s look at these problems in more detail.

Inconsistencies and Confusion

As we have seen in our explanation of articles, there are plenty of inconsistencies and exceptions to the basic rules once we have learned them. Throughout this blog, you may have noticed phrases such as ‘often’ or ‘in general’ which hints at the fact that the rules about articles are not always fixed. Why do we say ‘The Tower Of London’ and not ‘The Buckingham Palace’? Why do we speak about ‘The Grand Canyon’ but not ‘The Death Valley’? How is it that we can refer to the same person as ‘an’ American politician or ‘a’ United States politician but not ‘an’ United States politician, even though it is okay to say ‘an’ umbrella? The rules which we have looked at previously, together with the stated exceptions, more or less account for these things but it would be dishonest to claim they were clear or easy to remember. If we imagine the rules for using articles as a computer programme, we would have to say they are not intuitive. The many exceptions to the rules are confusing and hard to predict.

L1 Interference

Inconsistencies and confusion about the use of articles can be exacerbated by interference from the student’s first language. Many of our students will speak a language in which the rules for using articles are different and often more complicated than the basic English rules. For example, in some languages, articles take on a gender or vary according to the case being used. It is only natural that when our students are trying to work things out (especially where it is not clear which rules apply) they will have a tendency to unconsciously revert back to the rules of their first language. This often just makes things more confusing.

The Crown Jewels

In Britain next month the former Prince Charles will be crowned as King Charles III. During the Coronation ceremony, some of the most precious Crown Jewels will be used. Normally the Crown Jewels are kept and displayed in The Tower of London. To mark the occasion, we have produced a worksheet to revise articles on the theme of The Crown Jewels which you can download below.

You can also download our Royal Family Activities which includes four EFL activities that provide an engaging way to explore the history and traditions of the British monarchy while improving English language skills.