An article is a name given to a word used to identify the noun or a noun phrase that comes after it. There are two kinds of the article: definite and indefinite articles. Definite articles refer to a specific noun using ‘the,’ while indefinite articles are used when a noun is unclear.

What is an article in English?

For starters, what is an article in English? First, let’s define what we mean when talking about ‘articles.’ It can be a tricky concept for children to grasp, so it’s essential to be well-versed in them before you begin teaching.

An article is a word that identifies the noun or a noun phrase that comes after it as being either general or specific. Articles are similar to adjectives because they change or modify a noun. For example, in the English language, there are three different articles: ‘a’, ‘an’, and ‘the.’

Now that the question of ‘what is an article in English?’ is behind us let’s explore definite and indefinite articles in more detail!

What are definite and indefinite articles?

By now, we’ve answered the question, ‘what is an article in English?’. But when it seems like we’ve got articles figured out, we still need to break down the difference between the two kinds of the article: definite and indefinite articles. Below, we’ll explain what these two kinds are and when they’re used:

Definite article

‘The’ is called the definite article and refers to specific nouns. The definite article can be used with singular, plural, or uncountable nouns. For example:

  • ‘The man’s hat is blue.’
  • ‘Please pass me the red cup.’

In both of these examples, the nouns are specific: there’s no uncertainty about who or what they are!

Indefinite article

If the definite article refers to a specific noun, then the indefinite article is used when a noun is non-specific or more general. The indefinite article takes two forms:

  • The word ‘an’ when precedes a word that begins with a vowel.
  • The word ‘a’ when it precedes a word that starts with a consonant.

Both cases indicate that a noun refers to a general idea rather than a specific thing. Here are a few examples:

  • ‘Please pass me a knife.’
  • ‘Can you buy me an apple from the shop?’

In both of these examples, neither the knife nor the apple is specific. It could be any either item.

How do you choose between definite and indefinite articles?

Understanding the difference between definite and indefinite articles helps us better answer the question, ‘what is an article in English?’. But how do we know when to use each one?

While learning about articles, many children might ask you when to use ‘a’ and ‘an’ as definite and indefinite articles. It’s often a tricky grammar concept for children to grasp, but with support and practice, they can learn whether to use ‘a’ or ‘an’ for specific sentences.

Generally, we use ‘an’ before a word beginning with a vowel and ‘a’ when a term starts with a consonant. But unfortunately, this is just the general rule of thumb, and not all words follow this pattern. In addition, there are some exceptions to the rule that children must memorize when deciding whether to use ‘a’ or ‘an’.

However, there’s a helpful trick for deciding which to use; we need to distinguish consonant sounds and vowel sounds rather than just consonants and vowels.

For example, the first letter in ‘honor’ is a consonant but also unpronounced. Instead, the word begins with an ‘o’ sound, a vowel sound. So, we use ‘an’ rather than ‘a’ as we would with other words beginning with ‘h.’

  • ‘It is an honor to meet you.’

Some words beginning with ‘x’ start with the vowel sound ‘e,’ so we use ‘an’ for those as well:

  • ‘He had an X-ray.’

However, the word ‘xylophone’ has a consonant sound, ‘z,’ so we use a:

  • The band has a xylophone.’

But when it comes to choosing between definite and indefinite articles, it’s words beginning with ‘u’ that usually trip people up. So again, we focus on the sound that the ‘u’ makes to decide. Is it a consonant or vowel sound? Here are some examples to help.

U’ Word Consonant or Vowel Sound? ‘A’ or ‘An’?
Umbrella Vowel They held an umbrella.
Unfortunate Vowel It was a regrettable event.
Underdog Vowel He’s an underdog in this competition.
University Consonant She is going to be a university student.
Union Consonant Marriage is a union between two people.
Uniform Consonant The pupils have to wear a uniform.

Using articles with pronouns

Fortunately, there’s a much more straightforward rule: we avoid using them altogether. Possessive pronouns such as his, her, our, and there are already specific to a person or group. Moreover, adding an article can create a confusing sentence for the readers.

How are definite and indefinite articles taught in primary school?

At some point, your pupils may wonder, ‘what is an article in English?’. Articles are essential for children to learn because they show us if a noun phrase is specific or general. In addition, it helps children with their grammar, making their writing much more straightforward.

According to the 2014 revised primary curriculum, children should learn the correct grammatical terms. For example, they’ll learn that articles are one of several determiners (a word that specifies whether a noun or noun phrase is known or unknown).

Children will likely come across examples of definite and indefinite articles in the texts they read throughout primary school. In these texts, a person or thing is typically introduced by an indefinite article and then referred to with the definite article. For example:

  • ‘A cat entered the garden. The children wondered who the cat belonged to.’
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