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To use A, AN, and THE properly, you must know whether a noun is a Count or Non-Count Noun. (A count noun is something that can be counted: one book, two books, three books. A non-count noun is something that cannot be counted: milk, flour, freedom, justice). Here are some of the general and specific rules about using A, AN, and THE. Please note that there are several exceptions and more complicated situations than this guide can cover.

General Rules

  • Use “a” or “an” with a singular-count noun when you mean “one of many,” “any,” or “in general.”
    • Bob is a student (one of many students).
    • I like a good movie (one of many movies).
  • Use “the” with any noun when the meaning is specific; for example, when the noun names the only one (or one) of a kind.
    • Adam was the first man (the only “first man”).
    • New York is the largest city in the United States (only one city can be “the largest”).
    • We live on the earth (the only Earth we know).
    • Have you heard the news (specific news)?
  • Don’t use “a,” “an,” or “the” with a non-count noun when you mean “any,” “in general.”
    • We believe in love (in general).
    • He gave me information (not specific).

More specific rules and examples

Use “a” or “an” Use “the” Don’t Use “a,” “an,” or “the”
The first time you use a noun in a paragraph
  • I saw a movie last night.
  • A man ran into the street.
The second time you use that same noun in the same paragraph
  • I saw a movie last night. The movie was entertaining.
  • A man ran into the street. A car hit the man.
With a plural-count noun when you mean “some of many things,” “any,” “in general”
  • Movies are entertaining (some movies; movies in general).
  • She likes men (in general).
Title If the title is not a specific one
  • a president
  • a doctor
  • a queen
If a specific person has a title or if only one person has that title
  • the president
  • the doctor
  • the Queen of England
If the person’s name is given
  • President Kennedy
  • Dr. Yang
  • Queen Elizabeth
Names of Countries If the usage is non-specific
  • a country
If the country’s name is plural or indicates a group (of states, islands, etc.
  • the United States
  • the Netherlands
  • the Philippines
If the country’s name doesn’t include “a,” “an,” or “the”
  • Russia
  • South Africa
  • Holland
Names of Continents If the usage is non-specific
  • a continent
If using the specific name of the continent
  • Africa
  • Asia
  • North America
Names of Some Geographical Areas If the usage is non-specific
  • a city
  • a state
If the name includes “the”
  • the South Pole
  • the West
  • the North East
If the name doesn’t include “a,” “an,” or “the”
  • Western Europe
  • Southeast Asia
Names of Colleges, Universities, and Other Schools If the usage is non-specific
  • a school
  • a university
If the school’s title includes “of” or “for.”
  • the University of Maryland
  • the Catholic University of America
  • The Model Secondary School for the Deaf
If the school is named for a person or place
  • Gallaudet University
  • Harvard University
  • Georgetown University

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