#20: A Short Grammar Lesson about Articles

Definite and Indefinite Articles

Main Idea

Explaining the long list of rules about articles to English students is easy but boring. Using them correctly … well, that takes time, practice and resources. ESL students need frequent practice over an extend period of time to learn how to use articles in written and spoken form.

This mini-lesson does two things for ESL teachers and students learning English:

  1. reviews basic grammar rules;
  2. provides practice questions with answer keys.

Basic Rules

Here are seven basic rules to understand articles. (click here to download a pdf of the text)

1.  A/An with a single, general countable noun. It’s not specific, we don’t know which one.

  •  John went to the airport in a taxi.
  •  The taxi was black and yellow.

In the first sentence we use A. Why? The taxi is not specific. It’s any taxi.

In the second sentence, we’re talking about one specific taxi. Which taxi? The taxi John was talking to the airport. That’s why we use The in the second sentence.

Here’s is another example.

  • Hyun-chul wrote an email to his professor.
  • The email said that Hyun-chul was going to be late for class tomorrow.

2.  Don’t use a/the with single non-count nouns.

  • Gasoline is expensive.
  • Water is important.
  • Rice is delicious.

3.  But, look at these sentences. They talk about specific things. So use THE.

  • The gasoline at ESSO Oilbank is expensive.
  • The water in Victoria is clean.
  • The rice in this restaurant is delicious.

4.  Use A with counters plus non-count nouns. In these sentences, use the same rules as #1.

  • I have a bottle of vinegar in my bag.
  • The bottle of vinegar costs $1.50.

5.    Use THE when the reader knows the noun you are talking about because it is unique.

  • You should not look directly at the sun. (there is only one sun)
  • Please close the door when you come in the class. (you come in only one door).

6.  Don’t use THE with plural nouns that mean ALL or IN GENERAL.

  • The LED signs are everywhere in the downtown area. (X)
  • LED signs are everywhere in the downtown area.

If we make a small change, we need THE. Why do we use THE here?

  • The LED signs in the downtown area are bright at night.

7.  Usually, don’t use THE with proper names.

  • I live in the Busan. (X)
  • I talked with the Professor Whyte. (X)
  • The Seoul is the capital city of the Korea. (X)

Better to write sentences like these:

  • I live in Busan.
  • I talked with Professor Whyte.
  • Seoul is the capital city of Korea.

Exercises and Downloads

  1. The text version of the grammar rules here.
  2. Articles Practice 1 here
  3. Articles Practice 2 here.

Extension

Here’s a fun writing activity that gets students thinking. It combines story telling, word choice, articles and a brain teaser. Instructions are on the printable worksheet.

Tell students it’s a logic puzzle about a man, boat, goat and cabbage. He wants to cross the river, but can carry only one thing at a time.

The pictures tell the story, but they’re out of order. Put pictures in the correct sequence and write the story (1 or 2 sentences per pic is enough).

Use correct articles. Challenge intermediate+ students to use a different verb for each picture.


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