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- Articles - 'the', 'a', 'an'


- I / Me


- Something of a / Somewhat / A bit


- The More ...


- So / Such


- Lots of/ A lot of / A lot

Did you miss 'a' train or 'the' train?
Did 'a' train or 'the' train leave from the wrong platform?

A question from Damian from Poland:

I'm doing some exercises and I found that it's unclear for me when to use 'the' or 'a'. I've found some posts about 'the', 'a', 'an', but it's still problematic for me.

For example:
"If you live in a foreign country, you should try and learn the language."

'The' refers to the foreign country - am I right?

Another example:
"We missed our train because we were waiting on the wrong platform."

Is it possible to use 'a' instead of 'the' in this example?

Thanks for your help! And best wishes for the New Year! (A New Year is wrong, am I right?)

Articles: 'the', 'a', 'an'?


Ask about English

Alex Gooch answers:
Don't worry, you're not alone - almost all students of English find our articles difficult. The basic rule is that we use 'a' or 'an' for countable nouns, when we're introducing them for the first time.

For example, we might say:
"I watched a film yesterday."

This is the first time the film has been mentioned, and the listener doesn't know which film we're talking about, so we use 'a'.

'The' is used when we're discussing something and we expect that the listener already knows which thing we're talking about.

For example:
"I watched a film yesterday, but it wasn't as good as the film we watched last week."

We say 'the' film we watched last week because this film isn't something new. We already know about this film because we watched it last week.

We can also use 'the' in sentences like this:
"The planet Earth is round."

Do we know which planet Earth? Yes, of course we do, because there is only one planet Earth. We use 'the' when we're talking about something that's unique.

So, let's look at your first example...
"If you live in a foreign country, you should try and learn the language."

Do we know which language? Yes we do - it's the language which is spoken in that country.

For example, we might say:
"If you live in Poland, you should try and learn the language."

In this case, that language would be Polish because that's the language spoken in Poland (and yes, there are countries where more than one language is spoken, but let's not worry about that for now).

Unfortunately there are many exceptions to this rule. We don't have enough time to talk about all the exceptions here, but let's look at your second example:
"We missed our train because we were waiting on the wrong platform."

Do we know which wrong platform? Actually no, we don't, there may be many wrong platforms in this example. In fact, when we use the adjectives right and wrong, we almost always use the article 'the'.

There are some exceptions to this - for example, we say:
"I took a wrong turn."

As I said before, the article rules are extremely complex. After you fully understand the basic rule and the main exceptions, it's really not worthwhile trying to work out what rules govern each exception; it's just not helpful to try to think about it this way.

I'm sorry to say, generally, the only really effective way to learn how to use articles in English well is practice. When you've listened to enough spoken English, and read enough English written down, you will gradually start to develop a feeling and intuition for which is the correct article to use in a particular situation.

By the way, 'the' New Year is exactly right - well done!

Alex Gooch has been an English teacher for ten years. He has taught in Poland and Switzerland, and more recently he's been teaching in various universities in the UK.


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