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.
Hopefully these five steps will make it easier for you to understand when to use articles.