An article is an adjective. Like adjectives, articles modify nouns.

English has three articles: the and a/an. The is used to refer to specific or particular nouns; a/an is used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. We call the the definite article and a/an the indefinite article.

the = definite article

a/an = indefinite article

For example, if I say, “Let’s read the book,” I mean a specific book. If I say, “Let’s read a book,” I mean any book rather than a specific book.

Here’s another way to explain it: The is used to refer to a specific or particular member of a group. For example, “I just saw the most popular movie of the year.” There are many movies, but only one particular movie is the most popular. Therefore, we use the.

A/an” is used to refer to a non-specific or non-particular member of the group. For example, “I would like to go see a movie.” Here, we’re not talking about a specific movie. We’re talking about any movie. There are many movies, and I want to see any movie. I don’t have a specific one in mind.

Let’s look at each kind of article a little more closely.

Indefinite Articles: a and an

“A” and “an” signal that the noun modified is indefinite, referring to any member of a group. For example:

“My daughter really wants a dog for Christmas.” This refers to any dog. We don’t know which dog because we haven’t found the dog yet.
“Somebody call a policeman!” This refers to any policeman. We don’t need a specific policeman; we need any policeman who is available.
“When I was at the zoo, I saw an elephant!” Here, we’re talking about a single, non-specific thing, in this case an elephant. There are probably several elephants at the zoo, but there’s only one we’re talking about here.

Remember, using a or an depends on the sound that begins the next word. So…

a + singular noun beginning with a consonant: a boy; a car; a bike; a zoo; a dog

an + singular noun beginning with a vowel: an elephant; an egg; an apple; an idiot; an orphan

a + singular noun beginning with a consonant sound: a user (sounds like ‘yoo-zer,’ i.e. begins with a consonant ‘y’ sound, so ‘a’ is used); a university; a unicycle

an + nouns starting with silent “h”: an hour

a + nouns starting with a pronounced “h”: a horse

In some cases where “h” is pronounced, such as “historical,” you can use an. However, a is more commonly used and preferred.

A historical event is worth recording.