A vs The – The Articles

So, I'm doing a lot of critiquing lately and as I spot certain elements, I earmark them to use for writing tips. Here's another one I ran across recently that has been giving not only me, but others a bit of trouble.

The articles.

In English we use two articles, A/An and The. These are used to refer to something: the table, the chair, a pencil, a piece of paper. But when do you use them in writing?

You could say “the pencil” just as easily as you could say “a pencil”, right? So how do you make the distinction?

When an item has not been established, it should be "a."  A/An = indefinite article. It’s not very specific.

If the item has been established then use "the." The = definite article. It is more specific what we are talking about.

Let’s look at some examples.

I want to read the book. = There is a specific book the person wants to read.

I want to read a book. = Nothing specific here. The person just wants to read any old book.
She looked at the table, cluttered with books and papers. = We are referring to a specific table and its contents.

I’d like to watch a movie. = Any old movie would do. Nothing specific here.

I want a bottle of water. = Any bottle will do, I just want one. (Counted nouns usually have the “a.”)

He spilled the milk! = As an accusation, we are referring to a specific container of milk that “he” spilled.

So, does that make sense? If you want to talk about something specific, use “The,” otherwise, “A” is your article of choice.


Yup, makes sense and very well explained. I recently had to make this change to the first line of my story. "The" made it much more important.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steena Holmes said…
it seems like such a simple concept, doesn't it!
Excellent explanation! :-)
I've critted these mistakes before. But the writer's first language wasn't English.

Great post!
Deb Salisbury said…
A very clear explanation. Well done!
Natalie said…
That was perfect. Thanks for the explanation.
Jessica Nelson said…
Oh my gosh! LOL I never knew this, or I completely forgot. Thanks!
Katie S said…
glad these little tips and tricks are helpful.
I recently came across this in a book. I'd say "the" book, but I don't know which one it was. This post is a good reminder.
Louise said…
This is something I never thought about. I suppose it must've been put there in my head subconsciously, lol.
Good to have it explained!