Definite and Indefinite Articles | When to Use 'The', 'A' or 'An'
English has two types of articles to precede nouns: definite (the) and indefinite (a/an). You can improve the articles that appear in your dissertation by:
- not using unnecessary articles with plural nouns,
- not using ‘a’ or ‘an’ with uncountable nouns,
- using articles with singular countable nouns,
- correctly choosing ‘a’ or ‘an’ in front of an acronym,
- correctly deciding if an acronym for an entity needs ‘the’,
- correctly identifying if a country name needs ‘the’.
Table of contents
- Avoid using unnecessary articles with plural nouns
- Don’t use ‘a’ or ‘an’ with uncountable nouns
- Use an article (or other determiner) with a singular countable noun
- Correctly choose ‘a’ or ‘an’ in front of an acronym
- Correctly decide if an acronym for an entity needs ‘the’
- Correctly identify if a country name needs ‘the’
Avoid using unnecessary articles with plural nouns
If you are using a plural noun (such as students, criteria, or theses), you usually don’t need to use ‘the’.
|The researchers have commonly found that
|Researchers have commonly found that
|The studies were undertaken to determine
|Studies were undertaken to determine
The exception is if you want to distinguish that you are talking about a particular group of people or things.
|This topic has been investigated by teams at many top universities. The researchers have commonly found that
|You are talking specifically about work undertaken by certain teams (and not about researchers in general).
|The department conducted numerous studies with the funding. The studies were undertaken to determine
|You are referring specifically to the studies that were undertaken in this context (as opposed to studies in general).
Don’t use ‘a’ or ‘an’ with uncountable nouns
As the term implies, an uncountable (or mass) noun is something that normally cannot be counted (such as air, anger, information, knowledge, research, rice, and training).
Uncountable nouns cannot be accompanied by ‘a’ or ‘an’, as it’s impossible to have one of these things. If you really want to talk about one of something, the easiest option is to replace the uncountable noun with one that is countable. Another option is to add a countable noun after the uncountable noun.
|A research showed that
|A study showed that
A research project showed that
|A training was held
|A class was held
A training course was held
Use an article (or other determiner) with a singular countable noun
Singular countable nouns (such as formula, participant, and professor) generally cannot stand on their own. If you are not using a possessive (e.g., my, your, her) or a demonstrative (e.g., this, that), you should use an article.
|In interview it was revealed that
|In his interview it was revealed that
In that interview it was revealed that
In the interview it was revealed that
In an interview it was revealed that
|We tested hypothesis before we
|We tested our hypothesis before we
We tested this hypothesis before we
We tested the hypothesis before we
We tested a hypothesis before we
Correctly choose ‘a’ or ‘an’ in front of an acronym
Most writers know that words starting with a consonant sound need ‘a’ (e.g., a study, a participant, a European), while words starting with a vowel sound need ‘an’ (e.g., an observation, an interview, an Ethiopian).
The same is true with acronyms (or initialisms), which are formed using the first letter of a series of words (such as SWOT for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats). When deciding whether ‘a’ or ‘an’ is appropriate, focus on how the acronym would be pronounced. For instance, at first glance it might seem like ‘a HR manager’ is right; however, given the way it is read, ‘an HR manager’ is the correct choice.
Correctly decide if an acronym for an entity needs ‘the’
Acronyms that relate to organisations and countries have their own special guidelines when it comes to ‘the’.
The general test is whether an acronym would be read letter by letter (as in ADB) or pronounced as a word (as in NATO). Acronyms that are read letter by letter usually need ‘the’:
In contrast, acronyms that are read as words normally do not need ‘the’:
Correctly identify if a country name needs ‘the’
Most country names do not need an article. For instance, we say ‘The researcher traveled to Zimbabwe’ or ‘The study was conducted in Thailand’. However, ‘the’ is needed in the following circumstances:
|When the country’s name includes a common noun, such as Federation, Kingdom, Republic, or State
|the Central African Republic
the Czech Republic
the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
the Dominican Republic
the Kingdom of Bhutan
the Republic of Korea
the Russian Federation
the United Kingdom
|When the country’s name is a plural noun or contains a plural noun
the Federated States of Micronesia
the Marshall Islands
the Solomon Islands
the United Arab Emirates
the United States
Note that when it comes before a country name, ‘the’ does not need to be capitalised.
Sources for this article
We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.This Scribbr article Sources Show all sources (3)