Articles (the / a / an) confuse and frustrate learners of English writing, but the lack of consistency you show with these small words reveals your lack of native-like ability. You can become consistent. It just takes practice. Our
1. Generic Nouns
A generic noun is used to make a generalisation.
It refers to a whole class of something.
A generic noun does not refer to something specific, real, or concrete.
1.1 Generic Singular Count Nouns
Rule 1 – use ‘a/an’ or ‘one’ before the noun
Rule 2 – using ‘the’ for most species of animals, inventions, and instruments is also possible and feels more formal
Examples of Rule 1:
By desiring little, a poor man makes himself rich.
- Democritus (460BCE – 370BCE)
Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.
- Seneca (4 BCE -65CE)
Example of Rule 2:
The song of the Blackbird does not meet the approbation of bird-fanciers: 'It is not destitute of melody,' says Bechstein, 'but it is broken by noisy tones, and is agreeable only in the open country’.
- C. A. Johns (1909) British Birds in Their Haunts
1.2 Generic Plural Count Nouns
Rule 1 – do not use an article with generic plural count nouns
Men and women, gifted with feeling, intelligence, and character, look upward from its surface and watch the shining members of the heavenly host. Are none of these the home of beings gifted with like powers, who watch in their turn the movements of that shining point which is our world?”
- E. Walter Maunder (1913) Are The Planets Inhabited?
From my own observations on plants, guided to a certain extent by the experience of the breeders of animals, I became convinced many years ago that it is a general law of nature that flowers are adapted to be crossed, at least occasionally, by pollen from a distinct plant.
- Charles Darwin (1876) The Effects of Cross & Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom
1.3 Generic Non-Count Nouns
Rule 1 – do not use articles with generic non-count nouns
Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs.
- William Shakespeare (1597) Romeo and Juliet
The language of friendship is not words but meanings.
- Henry David Theroux (1817-1862)
2. Indefinite Nouns
Indefinite nouns refer to things in the real world, not symbols.
Indefinite nouns are real things but are not specifically pointed out or identified by the writer.
2.1 Indefinite Singular Count Nouns
Rule 1 – use ‘a/an’ or ‘one’ before the noun
the reader does not know or does not need to know the specific thing being referred to
the reader only needs to know that one member of the class of thing described is being referred to
We were dodging various craft down the harbour when a squadron of trawlers came out on our beam, at that extravagant rate of speed which unlimited Government coal always leads to. They were led by an ugly, upstanding, black-sided buccaneer with twelve-pounders.
- Rudyard Kipling (1915) The Fringes of the Fleet
Now, when Mrs Morel heard the rattle of an empty coal-cart cease at her entry-end, she ran into the parlour to look, expecting almost to see her husband seated in the waggon, his face grey under his dirt, his body limp and sick with some hurt or other. If it were he, she would run out to help.
- D. H. Lawrence (1913) Sons and Lovers
I, too, saw God through mud,—
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.
Merry it was to laugh there—
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
- Wilfred Owen (1917) Apologia Pro Poemate Meo
2.2 Indefinite Plural Count Nouns
Rule 1 – a word describing an amount is used before the noun
Type of words that can be used before an indefinite plural count noun – ‘some’, ‘two’, ‘a few’, a lot of’, ‘several’ etc.
She was sitting down in a basket chair, in her cream cashmere and satin ribbons, and Sid, standing with one hand on her shoulder, looking at her bouquet. And behind them there were some fern trees, and a waterfall, and Mount Cook in the distance, covered with snow.
- Katherine Mansfield (1924) Something Childish and Other Stories
He made engagements with her several times for lunch and tea — the former were hurried and, to him at least, rather unsatisfactory occasions, for she was sleepy-eyed and casual, incapable of concentrating upon anything or of giving consecutive attention to his remarks.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922) The Beautiful and Damned
2.3 Indefinite Non-Count Nouns
Rule 1 – the noun does not need an article or preceding word
Rule 2 - a word describing an amount can be used before the noun
Type of words that can be used before an indefinite plural non-count noun – ‘some’, ’a lot of’, ’a little’ etc.
I shall try to do what I see lady journalists do: interviewing and writing descriptions and trying to remember conversations. I am told that, with a little practice, one can remember all that goes on or that one hears said during a day. However, we shall see.
- Bram Stoker (1897) Dracula
I could only conjecture, while he was dragging me in by both hands, that (knowing my habits) he had come to the cottage to make sure of meeting me that night, and that he had some news to tell of an unusually agreeable kind.
- Wilkie Collins (1859) The Woman in White
3. Definite Nouns
Rule 1 – a noun is definite when writer and reader both know or are thinking about the specific thing that is being referred to (regardless of whether the reader has experienced the noun in the real world, after mentioning the noun once in writing, the writer then refers to the noun as a definite noun)
Rule 2 – ‘the’ is used with singular and plural count nouns and non-count nouns
Definite Singular Nouns
The trial of a pirate was usually a rough and ready business, and the culprit seldom received the benefit of any doubt that might exist. If he made any defence at all, it was usually to plead that he had been forced to join the pirates against his wish, and that he had long been waiting for an opportunity to escape.
- Burt Franklin (1924) The Pirates’ Who’s who
Definite Plural Count Nouns
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
- William Shakespeare (1599) As You Like It
The queen started laying again in the very first days of February, and the workers have flocked to the willows and nut-trees, gorse and violets, anemones and lungworts. Then spring invades the earth, and cellar and stream with honey and pollen, while each day beholds the birth of thousands of bees.
- Maurice Maeterlinck (1914) The Life of the Bee
Definite Non-Count Nouns
That same afternoon, the massive gray square tower of an old Cathedral rises before the sight of a jaded traveller.
- Charles Dickens (1870) The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Those who have regarded the Supreme Court of Civilization—meaning thereby the moral sentiment of the world—as a mere rhetorical phrase or an idle illusion should take note how swiftly that court—sitting now as one of criminal assize—has pronounced sentence upon the murderers of Edith Cavell. The swift vengeance of the world's opinion has called to the bar General Baron von Bissing, and in executing him with the lightning of universal execration has forever degraded him.
- James M. Beck (1861-1936) The Case of Edith Cavell