One of the most frequently seen errors in the written part of TOEFL is the misuse of articles. These are really troubling for some English learners, and people from particular parts of the world – especially those where Russian is the main language – have a lot of trouble with them.

This article is going to explain what articles are, why we use them, and how to remember the rules for correctly using articles. If you can remember all of this, you will give yourself a much better chance at scoring highly for both TOEFL writing and speaking.

Definite and Indefinite Articles

In the English language, we have two kinds of article – definite and indefinite. In most cases, you need to know whether to use one or the other, and in some cases you could actually use either of them. In the latter case, though, the choice will totally change the meaning of the sentence, so you must be careful.

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A definite article is the word “the.” The most basic definition of this is that it limits the meaning of the subsequent noun to just one particular thing. If I said to someone, “Have you seen the book?” then it is clear that I am referring to a book that both the speaker and I already know about. We have basically agreed that “the book” is something we understand. Perhaps we were just talking about it, or perhaps there was only one book in the room. In any case, “the book” being referred to is one thing and both people know about it. It could not possibly be anything else.

On the other hand, an indefinite article could be either the word “a” or “an.” This simply means that the noun that follows is one out of a possible range of things. In the above example, there is only one book possible in the question, but if we changed the definite article for an indefinite one, the meaning would be altered: “Have you seen a book?” now means “Have you seen any book?” This is logically a rather strange question and it is unlikely one person would ask another person if they had ever seen a book before!

There is an important distinction between these two types of articles and English learners have to know them. It is also essential to know whether to use “a” or “an” because using the incorrect does not just change the meaning of the sentence as above, but rather it is completely incorrect. Always use “a” before consonants and “an” before vowels. That can be seen in the following examples:

  • I cannot agree with the idea of having zoos in the twenty-first century; can you imagine the frustration an ape must feel being trapped in a cage?
  • I cannot agree with the idea of having zoos in the twenty-first century; can you imagine the frustration a gorilla must feel being trapped in a cage?

In the first example, “ape” began with a vowel, so we use the indefinite article, “an.” In the second, “gorilla” began with a consonant, so we used “the.” Please be aware that certain consonants that produce vowel-like sounds also take “an” rather than “a”. For example, we would say “an honest man” because we do not pronounce the “h” at the beginning of “honest.”

Similarly, certain vowels begin with a consonant-like sound, such as the “u” at the beginning of “united.” We might then say “It is important to show a united front.”

Learning the Rules of Article Use

It is important to know whether to use a definite or indefinite article, or whether it is appropriate to use no article at all. This is a major point of frustration for many TOEFL candidates.

First and foremost, as I explained above, we use “the” with nouns where the meaning is limited to just one idea. This is often when both speakers know what is being referred to or in writing it is when something has already been mentioned before, and is being referred to again. As such, it is known to the writer and the reader. For example, if we were discussing a book, we could not refer to it as “the book” at the beginning of a piece of writing, but if it were introduced, we could later refer back to it as “the book” (unless multiple books were mentioned):

  • The Great Gatsby is one example of a novel capturing an era perfectly. The book is frequently seen not just on the curricula of literature courses but of American history courses around the world.

Here, it is reasonable to say “the book” because we know it refers to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby. We simply could not say this if it were not clear that the idea were limited to just one single possibility: The Great Gatsby.

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We also use the definite article to describe something that there is only one of. This again implies some shared knowledge between the reader and writer (or listener and speaker). For example, we talk about “the moon” even though there are many moons in the universe because both people are on Earth, and Earth has only one moon. Two Americans might talk about “the president” even though there are many presidents on Earth because there is only one American president. People living in a particular town might talk about “the cinema” because they both know that they mean the one cinema in the town.

Definite articles are also used with superlatives, again showing that there is just one possible thing. There could not be more than one thing in the position of superlative, so this is logical. We might say “He was the richest man in the world” or “She was the smartest girl in her class.”

One of the slightly confusing uses of definite articles is in reference to concepts that are greater than just a single thing. We often talk about “the TV,” “the radio,” and “the internet.” Of course, there is more than one TV in the world! However, we refer to these exclusively with a definite article when talking about the thing in general. We do the same for musical instruments: “He plays the guitar but she plays the piano.”

Finally, certain countries or groups of states can be referred to with a definite article. We generally use this for groups, so look for “-s” at the end of the noun:

  • The United States, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates
  • The US, the UK, the UAE
  • The European Union, the United Nations
  • The Netherlands, the Philippines

Conversely, indefinite articles are used when we don’t know or don’t want to say what something is or when something is part of a group. We might say, for example, “I am looking for a new apartment.” In this case, of course I don’t know which apartment I will move into because I haven’t found it yet! It would be impossible for me to say “I’m looking for the new apartment” because then I am referring to something I don’t know, and the listener probably doesn’t know either.

When something is one out of a possible group, we can also refer to it with an indefinite article. We use this when we ask for something that is uncertain: “Can I have a cup of tea, please?” In this case, there is not a cup of tea sitting directly in front of the speaker, so he is asking for one – importantly, one that doesn’t yet exist. You might also read this in a news report: “The police are looking for a man who was seen fleeing the scene of a crime last night.” Here, they are looking for one out of many possible men for a crime (one of several in the city) that happened in one single place.

Avoid the Biggest Article Mistake!

It takes a long time to master article use, but constant practice will help you to get there eventually. In the meantime, though, there is a simple rule that is easy to remember and will help you to avoid the most common and egregious of article errors. That is: Don’t use an indefinite article with plural nouns. This is because “a” and “an” refer to one single thing.

We cannot say, for example, “A knives is used in most Western countries, whereas in Asia people use a chopsticks.” Both those nouns are plural and cannot take the indefinite article. In fact, in these cases no article is needed at all. You should just say: “Knives are used in most Western countries, whereas in Asia people use chopsticks.”

Making this sort of error in either speaking or writing would negatively impact your TOEFL score. If you want to improve your chances of TOEFL success, you should get your writing assessed through our writing correction service.

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