The use of the definite and indefinite article

the definite and indefinite articleDid you know that the 25 most commonly used words in the English language make up about 33% of all English words and guess which word is top of the list?

It’s no surprise that we find ‘the’ at the top with ‘a’ being the sixth most commonly used word in English.

Which other words do you think appear in the first ten words on the list? Check your answers at the bottom of this page.

A simple introduction to the use of the definite and indefinite article (the, a/an)

‘The, a/an’ are small words but in English grammar we use them in lots of different and sometimes confusing ways.

In English grammar we refer to ‘the’ as the definite article and ‘a/an’ as the indefinite article.

To try and help you understand how to use them correctly, have a go at placing these sentences in the correct order:

  1. I was sitting in the coffee shop waiting for my friend.
  2. When the cup of coffee arrived the waiter gave me the bill.
  3. I had a problem at a coffee shop today.
  4. A waiter asked me what I wanted and I ordered a cup of coffee

The last sentence – I had forgotten my wallet and so I could not pay for the coffee!

The correct order is (3), (1), (4), (2)

Why does ‘a coffee shop’ change to ‘the coffee shop’ when it is referring to the same place?

The simple answer is that when we first introduce something we use ‘a‘ and then when we refer  to it again we use ‘the‘.  The definite article ‘the‘ shows that we are talking about something specific, that we know exactly what place, person or thing is being referred to. To summarise, usually the first mention is ‘a’ (a cup of coffee) and then for next mentions we use ‘the’.

Remember that if we are using a noun that starts with a vowel (a,e,i,o,u) after the indefinite article,  the indefinite article changes from ‘a’ to ‘an’. It just makes saying it easier.  An egg is easier to say than a egg!

Other guidelines for using the definite and indefinite article (the, a/an)

Unfortunately, the explanation above doesn’t help us with every use of the article! Read on for some more guidelines


  1. to mean one e.g. I have a cat and two dogs.
  2. after verbs like to be, to seem, to become to give more information about a person or thing e.g. He is a lovely man, he became an actor.
  3. before a job or profession – he is a teacher, she is an accountant, he is a cleaner.

Indefinite articles can only be used with countable nouns.  You can say ‘he bought an orange’ but you can’t say ‘he bought a milk’ – milk is uncountable and so we say ‘he bought milk’.


  1. when referring to things that we all know and do not have to be introduced to  – I looked at the sky.
  2. things that there are only one of – the top of my head.
  3. groups of people including nationalities – The French, the army.
  4. some geographical terms – this is one of the most confusing  times we use ‘the’.  We use it for groups of islands The Azores, states The United States of America, and Kingdoms The United Kingdom: areas of water including rivers The Atlantic Ocean, The Nile; but NOT lakes.
  5. ordinal numbers, dates and periods of time – the third car, the fourth of July, the seventies.
  6. when using the superlative –he is the best footballer.

Common mistakes in the use of the definite and indefinite article

Lots of people learning English often use an article when it is completely unnecessary. English speakers do NOT use an article before:

academic subjects –  she is going to study history at University

sports – he likes playing football

meals – I had chips for lunch

ways of travelling – I went to France by boat

medical conditions – he suffers from asthma

Answer for Top 10 most commonly used English words:

In order they are :  the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, I

If you are looking for help with your English language skills contact us for information about private lessons.  We can help you improve your English.





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