When to Use Articles Before Nouns

The Time? A Time? Or Just Time?

Neal Whitman, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #224

An infographic of the types of nouns that need or don't need an article

Several listeners have written with questions on when to use the definite article “the,” the indefinite article “a,” or neither. For example, Tracy W. wrote, “Which is correct: ‘Thank you for taking time to review my application,’ or ‘Thank you for taking the time to review my application’?”

The use of articles is a tricky subject, with many exceptions and idiosyncrasies. We can’t cover all the cases today, but we can look at the basic rules and see how they apply to Tracy’s question.

Nouns That Need Determiners: Countable Singular Nouns

We’ll start with some facts about nouns. First, some nouns in English can’t stand alone. For example, you can’t just say, “Cat crossed the road.” You have to say something like “A cat,” “The cat,” “Squiggly’s cat,” “Every cat,” or maybe “No cat.” “A,” “the,” the possessive noun “Squiggly’s,” “every,” and “no” are all examples of what linguists call determiners, and in English, some nouns have to have determiners.

So exactly which nouns need them? Countable, singular nouns, such as “cat,” must have a determiner.

Nouns That Don't Need Determiners: Proper Nouns

Of course, if you’re writing about a cat named Cat, or someone named Catherine who’s called Cat for short, then “Cat crossed the road” works. This brings us to one kind of noun that doesn't have to have a determiner: the proper noun. Proper nouns usually don’t have determiners; for example, you wouldn’t say “a Squiggly” or “every Squiggly,” except in the unusual situation where there’s more than one person named Squiggly.

Nouns That Don't Need Determiners: Plural Nouns

Plurals can go without determiners, too. Although you can say “the cats,” you can also just say “cats,” if you don’t have any particular cats in mind.

Nouns That Don't Need Determiners: Mass Nouns

Mass nouns—also called uncountable nouns—don’t need a determiner, either. Take the uncountable noun “information”: Although you can say, “I need your information,” or “I need the information,” you can also just say “I need information,” if you don’t want to be specific.

Mass nouns usually allow any determiner, provided it’s not one that implies the noun is countable. So you can’t say something like “one information,” “two information,” or “many information.” In particular, you can’t say “an information,” because “a,” which is a form of the word “one,” implies that “information” is a countable noun.

Some nouns don't fit nicely into these categories. Next, let's consider the nouns that can go either way.


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.