English articles for non-native speakers

A few simple rules can help non-native speakers get English articles such as the, a, and an right.

Some documentation I get to edit is written by tech writers whose native language doesn’t have articles. Their grasp on the subject at hand is as good as any colleagues’, and most of their grammar and spelling is fine, but articles the and a and an give them a hard time.

So I’ve put together a few rules which are easy to memorize and help writers get articles right most of the time. Judging from my colleagues’ writing, they work… πŸ™‚

The definite article the

Use the to refer to one or several specific, individual things. For example:

  • β€œOpen the package by pulling on the lid.”
  • β€œTo close the windows, click the Close button.”
  • “To save the changes, select the File > Save option.”
  • “‘Automatic’ is the only valid setting in this situation.”

The indefinite articles a and an

Use a or an to refer to one unspecific, countable thing. For example:

  • “You need a router and a network cable before you can connect your computer to the Internet.”
  • “To visit web sites, use a web browser, such as Mozilla Firefox, Chrome or Internet Explorer.”

Use a or an to refer to one particular example of something, often with a descriptive adjective. For example:

  • “C# is an object-oriented programming language.”
  • “PGP is a safe way to encrypt e-mails.”

No article

Use no article when the number of things cannot be counted or does not matter. For example:

  • “Many users worry about privacy and online security.”
  • Computers and netbooks are often equipped with WLAN cards.”

Additional advice

These rules are not 100% complete or error-proof, but they cover most of the scenarios you will encounter.

For additional rules and examples, I recommend these websites:

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6 Responses

  1. As a non-native speaker, I have received quite some flak on my usage of articles. However, no one has been able to explain the rules in such simple manner. Great post!

  2. Many thanks. In the family of languages that I call my native (Slavic), there are no articles at all and it still sounds very unnatural to me when I add various articles in front of words. It takes years of reading English texts and conversation practice to get a “feeling” of what is correct. Even though I learned similar rules that you describe above in my first English classes, I am still confused at least 20% of the time, because there are exceptions to the rules… I saved your blog and I’ll definitely use it in the future to remind myself of ABC’s, so thank you again very much.

    • You’re welcome, Danijela! πŸ™‚

      Indeed, the writers for whom I drew up the rules were also native Slavic speakers. πŸ˜‰

  3. Very useful also for Polish technical writers – thanks a lot!

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