a, an, and the

a, an, and the


These three little words are troublesome for beginners of English. In the Chinese language you would not find their equivalent.


To use them properly, we first of all have to put nouns into two categories – countable nouns and uncountable nouns, because they three occur with nouns.


When we use a noun, or any noun, we have to ask ourselves whether one of the three words should be put before it. It can be hard to answer the question, "Is this noun countable or uncountable?"


Some nouns are countable in both English and Chinese. Examples are TABLE, CUP, and HAND. These nouns share one feature – they are names of something concrete or an object.


Some nouns are uncountable in both English and Chinese. Examples are POVERTY, MONEY, WATER and CAREFULNESS. These nouns are either names of an abstract idea or names of material.


However, our trouble occurs where the two languages disagree. In Chinese, the word for tables, desks, cupboards, beds and others sounds like countable while in English the corresponding word FURNITURE is definitely uncountable. Other common examples of this sort are EQUIPMENT, INFORMATION, and ADVICE.


Still there is a more confusing case regarding the question whether a noun is countable or uncountable. An English noun is uncountable with one sense but countable with another. Look at the word SUCCESS.


Failure is the mother of SUCCESS. (uncountable)

Jay Chou was a failure as a student. He is A BIG SUCCESS as a pop singer. (countable)


Therefore, the best policy when uncertain about this question is to ask your dictionary. C stands for countable; U for uncountable.


Let’s come back to the three small words – a, an, and the. The following rules are too big to ignore when we use a noun.


1. When we say what something is or what somebody is, we use a/an if the noun is countable and we use nothing before the noun if it is uncountable.


— What is your father?

— He is a teacher.


— What is this?

— It is a cup.


— What does water turn into if you freeze it?

— It turns into ice.


2. We also use nothing before a plural noun when we say what some things are or what some people are.


— What do we need to be happy?

— We need friends.


Human beings should look after animals.


3. THE is used before a singular countable, a plural countable, or an uncountable in the following cases:


  a. where both the speaker and the listener know what is being discussed;


Mary, don’t you think the English teacher is funny?


  b. where the same noun is mentioned again;


— I came across a cat on my way to work this morning.

— Really? What was the cat doing?




  c. where something unique is denoted by the noun.


The earth is our common home. We should love it.


4. Most Chinese learners, as a matter of fact, tend to use a, an, and the where they should not occur. In the following situations, remember not to use a, an, and the.


  a. A/AN never occurs before an uncountable noun.

a water; a money


  b. A/AN never occurs before a plural noun.

a books; a fans


  c. THE never is used before a plural noun when we use the noun to tell what something is.


Horses are stronger than pigs.


  d. THE does not find its place before an uncountable noun if we use the noun to tell what something is.


— What is there in the bottle?

— There is air in it.


Good grammar contributes to better English. Put your grammar knowledge into constant language practice and your use of it will become automatic.


Happy learning.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. webyouth
    Dec 15, 2007 @ 03:48:52

    It is wonderful! I learned a lot fot this essay. Thank you!


  2. mary
    Dec 20, 2007 @ 06:57:30

    good , come on
    and enjoy ur day


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: