Whether a beginner or advanced, misusing articles is one of the most common mistakes my students make. Articles often don’t exist in other languages, so when a learner translates directly from their language to English they almost always forget to add an article.
Learning when to use articles is simple and can be taught in 5 simple steps.
Step 1 - Understanding counting nouns.
A counting noun is simply a noun that you can count or have more than one of. For example 2 apples, three cups, 4 pens, 1 dog. If you can have more than one of something it’s a counting noun and it needs an article in front of it. If you can’t have more than one then it’s an uncountable noun. Can you give someone 3 advices? No. Advice is not countable.
Step 2- Articles go in from of countable nouns.
Correct- I read a book. Incorrect- I read book.
Correct- We’re getting a dog today. Incorrect- We’re getting dog today.
Step 3 - When to use "an"
We only use an when the next word starts with a vowel (a,e,i,o,u) Correct- I’m getting an iphone. Incorrect- I’m getting a ipone. I’m getting iphone Correct- I would like an apple. Incorrect- I would like a apple. I would like apple.
Step 4- When to use "the"
We use the when we’re talking about something specific, obvious, or something the people in the conversation already know about.
Talking about something specific- This is when you are only referring to one particular thing. For example. I will see you at the football game. (This refers to a game that both people in the conversation already know about). I will see you at a football game. (This refers to any football game). I’m going into the building. (a particular building) I’m going into a building (a general, non specific building).
We will often start a conversation using "a", and then switch to "the" as the subject becomes familiar. I took a train to New York. The train was late. I saw a man wearing that coat. The man went down the street.
Step 5- Don’t use a or an with plural nouns.
Correct- I have 2 apples. Incorrect- I have apples. I have 2 an apples. I have an apples. Correct- I made 3 sandcastles. Incorrect- I made sandcastles. I made 3 an sandcastles. I made an sandcastles.
However you can use the if you are talking about something specific. I have the apples. I made the sand castles.
Hopefully these five steps will make it easier for you to understand when to use articles.