Foolproof rule for "a" and "the"?

My apologies if this had been addressed recently. Searches for “a” and “the” are pretty useless.

Is there a simple rule to help end the exceedingly common errors with “a” and “the” that Taiwanese learners of English seem to make?

I can think of a few rules, but nothing that covers most cases. Some of my rules are even contradictory. Maybe there are too many cases. I don’t know.

Many thanks.

“THE” is used when you are ONLY talking about one specific thing.

Eat THE apple (the one oyu see on the table).

“A” is more generic.

A bear ate a kid in Jellystone Park today.(What bear? Dunno. What kid? Dunno.)

brief, but hope it helps.


I think you mean when to use an article and when not to, right, not the difference between “THE” and “A”? (Although that’s worth stating too).

In grammar terms (which some Taiwanese seem to like), the rule is that if the noun is a count noun and is singular, you must use an article (A or THE). Otherwise, it depends on the meaning. The only exception is when a singular noun refers to all examples of that noun (e.g. “Man is a social animal”). Mass nouns (“sugar”, for example – anything you have to say “I want some…” instead of “I want a…” before in English) don’t need and indeed can’t take an article in the singular. In the plural they can, because a plural mass noun means all the different kinds of that thing (“The sugars produced in this area are famous…” assuming they make white sugar, brown sugar, and I don’t know what other kinds of sugar.)

Articles are late-acquired by native speaking kids. It seems counterintuitive to expect learners of English to master them just becuase it seems convenient to present them first in the book since they’re short and common. I’m not saying we should give up on it, just that it’s one of those things (like having learners of Chinese acquire the correct usage of “le” in Mandarin) that takes time and sometimes just never arrives at 100% accuracy.

In my technical writing classes, I used to actually have the kids mark each and every noun and check whether it was a singular count noun or not, and then deal with the article accordingly.

Now, the other thing I’d like to have a magic formula for is to get Taiwanese students to write “a” instead of “one”. Chinese uses “one + measure word” where we would use “a” in English (but also where we would truly use “one”) so I guess it’s just one of those things, but for some reason hearing “one” where it should be “a” irritates me in a linguistic sense. Maybe I need some new hobbies. :smiley:

Use a to mean ‘any example of something’ and the to mean ‘you know which one/ones I mean’.

I think some of the problems students encounter with “a” and “the” are the exemplified by the following:

A. “I’m looking at a house on the waterfront tomorrow.”
“I’m looking at the house on the waterfront tomorrow.”

Both said when you only have one specific house in mind. The first would probably be said when the listener does not know anything about the house. The second when he does. But this kind of context specific use is very hard to explain to students. This is where general rules fail.


“I’m lookin for a girl who can make me happy.”

“I’m looking for the girl who can make me happy.”

“I’m looking for the girl of my dreams.”

“I’m looking for a dreamgirl.”

In each case, you only have one girl in mind.

B. “The boy walked down the/a dusty backstreet of Motown toward the/a store. He paused at the entrance of the store, and then went in.”

C. “A boy walked down a/the dusty backstreet of Motown toward a/the store. He paused at the entrance of the store, and then went in.”

It’s more complicated than this, but regarding singular count nouns, this is how I explain it…

Use “The” when both the speaker and listener know the specific one being referred to. Use “A” when this condition isn’t met.

I refer to this as the “I know and you know” rule. Now it gets more complicated with “The rose is my favorite flower” type expressions, but it will get them right most of the time and is easy to understand.

The use of a determiner like “a” or “the” in a single sentence is an important. But all everyone so far seems to be talking about when you are trying to write or say a single sentence. In my experience, Taiwanese people generally make mistakes when they try to speak or write in a larger context. Perhaps they don’t know that they should use a determiner - in that case try to get them to use articles (Determiners are something like “ge” in Chinese. You don’t say, “Yi dong xi” but rather “Yi ge dong xi”. Though determiners in English are not the same as determiners in Chinese, we need to use them at the right time.) If they omit the determiner “a” or “the” you can remind them “you should use a determiner” and then you can either see if they can self-correct what they said/wrote or you can model how they should have said it. After a few weeks of this they should understand generally that they should use a determiner. So this is one rule you can teach them: Use a determiner!

After we get over that first rule about determiners, there is another big rule. The big rule comes into play the first time you talk about a noun: you should use “a” to show that it’s indefinite which noun you are talking about. (Indefinite to the listener. Thus it broke Little Yellow Dog’s I know and you know rule.) After that, when you talk about the noun you should use “the” because it’s definitely the noun that you were talking about in the first place (It doesn’t break the I know and you know anymore, because now that you mentioned it, I know what you are talking about.). This is the big rule about determiners that Taiwanese people should learn, but it’s not so easy. If they don’t know about the rule and they sometimes hear “a” but other times hear “the” then they may feel like they can use whichever one they like. Again, when someone doesn’t follow this rule you can spend a few seconds on the rule. After a few months of this they might have a tenuous grasp on it and not make the mistake so much. :laughing: Maybe you could call this big rule the use “a” for the first time a noun is used, but use “the” for the noun after that rule. Notice that when you say the big rule this way, it obeys the rule itself. Isn’t that kewl?

Well, that’s a rule, but is it the rule? :wink:

as has been said, you use “the” when the listener knows which person or thing is being referred to. this generally means one of three things:

  1. there is only one “the sun”

  2. there is only one in the current context (because it is nearby/obvious/regularly referred to…) “The light is broken” “how was the movie?” “Let’s go to the park”

  3. it has been referred to previously in conversation

“I got hit by a car. I was walking down the street. The car comes flying…”

It’s both a rule and the rule for Taiwanese people if you ask me. :sunglasses:

Two rules:

  1. Use a determiner!
  2. Use “a” for the first time a noun is used, but use “the” for the noun after that.

Everything else is an exception. :smiling_imp:

These are rules to get the habits ingrained, not to learn so you can mull over the rule before talking, which is what I think the OP is asking for. With these two rules you can just pop out a short-winded grammar explanation in context twenty times a day easily. I feel like intermediate/advanced learners can start using determiners approaching fluency with these two rules alone (repeating these two rules often, with errors with exceptions like “the” for “the White House” representing such an uncommon portion of your life that do they really need a rule?).

“a” one of many or not special. A beer, a teacher, etc.
“the” special or one of a kind. The Queen, the end, etc.

Easy? There are exceptions as with everything to do with English.
None to worry about really.

Cheers, S.

I think of all the explanations so far, Tempo Gain’s is the most efficient. It’s precise, covers most cases, and brief.

It still doesn’t account for “play the piano” and some other exceptions, but for most cases it will work well.

Sadly, I don’t think you can have a single “fool-proof” rule. You have to have a group of rules with a list of exceptions.