Basic English Usage
Articles

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The Question: When do I use the and when do I use a?

The Answer: It's complicated. Seriously, it's really complicated. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! It's kind of like that.

Broadly speaking, type and familiarity determine when we use the and when we use a:

type: the identifies some stuff (that can be measured); a identifies some thing (that can be counted).

familiarity: the identifies something we do know about or have talked about; a identifies something that we don't know much about or have not talked about.


Stuff


writer thinks:
   I know which stuff.
   I know you know which stuff.
writer writes:
   "the water"
   "the money"


writer thinks:
   I know which stuff.
   I did not yet tell you which stuff.
writer writes:
   "water"
   "money"


writer thinks:
   I am not sure which stuff.
writer writes:
   "some water"
   "some money"


Thing


writer thinks:   
I know which thing.
I know you know which thing.
writer writes:   
"the river"
"the payment"


writer thinks:   
I know which thing.
I did not yet tell you which thing.
writer writes:   
"a river"
"an old river"
"a payment"
"an easy payment"


writer thinks:   
I am not sure which thing.
writer writes:   
"a river"
"an old river"
"a payment"
"an easy payment"

If you try to memorize all the rules, you must also memorize all the exceptions. That's too much work. Keep in mind that it took English speakers years to learn the rules and exceptions. And they didn't do it by memorizing rules and exceptions. They did it by speaking and hearing, and correcting themselves when they made mistakes.

A good way to learn these customs of usage is to occasionally read out loud a story in a good, online, English-language magazine, such as The Atlantic. You will hear good writers using articles correctly, and you will gradually learn how to use them correctly yourself.

Lesson: Pictures
Module: Articles
Course: Basic English Usage