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Articles for countable and uncountable nouns

In the english language there are three articles. These are; a, an and the. Learning when and how to use them can be a difficult process for ESL learners. For native speakers we use them correctly without hesitation or even thinking but the learner must decide on a noun by noun basis. This is especially difficult for learners from Asian countries such as China, Korea and Japan as languages in these countries don’t have articles. The guidelines that follow should help get the basics across.

To help students get to grips with particles, first you must teach countable and uncountable nouns. 

-A countable noun is something that can have a number in front of it. For example one book, ten cats, a thousand trees. Usually things that have an ‘s’ on the end.

-Uncountable nouns are things that you cannot place a number in front of. For example you cannot say; 2 waters, 5 oils, 20 salts. 

Whats this got to do with articles?

Well here’s what…

Uncountable nouns

-you cannot use a/an with uncountable nouns

-you cannot put a number in front of an uncountable noun nor can you add an ‘s’ on the end

-you don’t use an article with an uncountable noun at all if you are referring to that thing in general. Example: That’s cheese.

-You can use ‘the’ with an uncountable noun when you are talking about a specific thing. Example: Can you pass the water?

Countable nouns

-You can put a number in front of a countable noun and you can add an ‘s’ on the end

-You can use all the articles with different countable nouns

-If there is only one thing you must use an article.

-If there is more than one of that thing you cannot use an article.

-When you talk about something for the first time you usually use a/an. Once the listener knows what you’re talking about, the ‘thing’ requires a ‘the’ rather than ‘a’ or ‘an’

Following this, here are some important guidelines:


So, these are the rules for using a/an or the when talking about countable/uncountable nouns. For more on articles refer to 'Articles for beginners'.

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