IELTS grammar: how to use articles (a, an, the) in English

If there is one issue that troubles almost every English learner, it is the use of articles. Articles (a, an, the) are words to be used before nouns, but remembering which article to use and when to use it can be hard. To help you with that problem Adam, our experienced Speaking examiner of 10 years who also taught English for 15 years, made this video. Watch him explain all the cases when you need an article and learn an easy way to remember them!

Watch the video on YouTube here

The great thing about today’s grammar lesson is that not only will your IELTS preparation benefit from it, but also your general knowledge of English. It will help you in your studies, if you study in English, or at work, if English is used in your workplace or your business. It will help you sound more like a native English speaker when you talk to people. It will make your writing look more professional. All you need to do is watch this video, become aware of articles and start practicing in using them correctly whenever you can.

Go here to check YOUR own Speaking score.

A quick recap from the video:

4 Basic Rules for articles a, an, the in English

1. Articles are words ‘a, an, the’ that come before a noun, for example ‘an apple’.
A simple rule to remember – they show quantity: a/an = 1.
Articles also come before adjectives, for example ‘a juicy apple’ and noun phrases, such as ‘a delicious, juicy apple’.
Plural nouns don’t need articles: ‘Cats can be big or small’ (no article before ‘cats’).

2. Articles show whether both the speaker and the listener are familiar with something or not.
The restaurant next to our school’ – the speaker and the listener know exactly which restaurant is being mentioned, and that is why the definite article ‘the’ is used before ‘restaurant’.

Articles also show whether the speaker and the listener are unfamiliar with something.
‘I saw a new restaurant on my way to school’ – only the speaker saw the restaurant but the listener doesn’t know about it. This is why an indefinite article ‘a’ is used before ‘restaurant’.

3. Is the noun countable or uncountable?
If the noun is countable and it is singular, put a/an in front of it: a banana, an apple.
Uncountable articles such as ‘money’ don’t need articles – ‘I need money’.

Tip 1: a/an aren’t pronounced clearly, native speakers don’t stress them. Listen to Adam’s pronunciation in the video and try to copy that.

4. Possessive adjectives (her, my, their) don’t need articles.
When we know who the owner is (her book, my pen, their father), we don’t use articles. The same is true about adjectives that show quantity and location: that book, those books, any day, each day, one day.

Tip 2: to understand and reinforce your knowledge of articles, read and remember this story:

“I was walking to school when I saw a cat. The cat started looking at me. Then a man tapped me on the shoulder. The man asked if the cat scared me.”

Advanced rules – IELTS Band 7 to 9

1. The – for entertainment
I went to the cinema / the pub / she shops

2. The – for transport
I arrived at the airport, the bus stop; I took the bus / the subway

3. The – for musical instruments
I play the piano / the violin / the guitar

4. The – for common places
I went to the hospital / the post office / the police station

5. The – for rivers, mountain ranges, oceans and seas, groups of islands
Example: the Nile, the Rocky mountains, the Pacific ocean, the Maldives

6. The – for hotels, cinemas, political groups, newspapers
Example: the Hilton, the Cinemas, the Democrats, the New York Times

7. No articles for most time expressions
Example: next month / last year / on Monday / on my day off
Exception: At the weekend

8. No articles for meals
Example: I had breakfast and I will eat lunch later.

9. No articles for work, home, bed
Example: I went to work, then I came home and went to bed.

10. No articles for proper nouns – names, places
Example: ‘I will talk to Adam’ or ‘I went to Toronto’

And finally – idioms don’t follow any rules. You just have to memorise the full idiom as one expression, such as ‘in a hurry’, ‘off the record’, ‘out of action’

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