The use of the articles depends on the kind of noun they modify. Below is the division of nouns into different classes which is relevant for the use of the articles.
(denotes any object of a class)
(distinguishes an object or a person from other ones of the same class)
(ideas, actions, processes, qualities)
e.g. John, Mickey Mouse, Putin, Dracula, Quasimodo, Britney Spears, James Bond, Aristotle
e.g. The Limpopo, Tuvalu, Manhattan, the Washington Post, the QE2, West Ham United, Zhelyabov Street, Alpha Centauri
(objects or living beings belonging to a class)
e.g. a student, a pithecanthropus, a cat, a cucumber,
e.g. whisky, plastecine, carbon dioxine, paper, snow
(denote groups of objects or living beings as undivided bodies)
e.g. equipment, the bourgeoisie, cattle, the rich
USE OF ARTICLES WITH CLASS NOUNS
MEANING OF ARTICLES WITH CLASS NOUNS
1. The indefinite article has the nominating, classifying, numeric and generalizing meanings. (As the indefinite article is used only with singular nouns, the absence of article before plural nouns has similar meaning, the only exception being the numeric meaning. Thus the absence of article is meaningful and is often called the zero article.)
a) The nominating meaning: The indefinite article in this meaning denotes what kind of object (thing, person, etc.) the speaker has to do with. We give a name to an object we have in mind:
I slept like a log.
There is a piano in the corner.
I could eat a horse now.
A cloud passed across the sun.
b) The classifying meaning: The indefinite article in this meaning assigns an object to a certain class or kind of similar objects. Nouns with the indefinite article in the classifying meaning are usually predicatives or appositions in the sentence:
My dog is a chow chow.
Mary has always been a good student.
The defendant, a woman of 48, denies kicking the policeman.
NOTE: The difference between the nominating and the classifying meanings becomes apparent if we turn the examples given above in the plural. In the case of the nominating meaning plural nouns may be preceded by words like some, several, a few, etc.:
I could eat several horses now.
c) The numeric meaning: The indefinite article in this meaning shows the oneness of the object. In this case it can be substituted by the word one:
An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
A million students were present at the grammar lesson.
d) The generalizing meaning: The indefinite article in this meaning indicates that the following noun denotes a typical member of a class:
A square has four sides. (=Every square has four sides.)
A cat is a domestic animal. (=Every cat is a domestic animal.)
A crocodile has a tail. (=Every crocodile has a tail, unless it is sick.)
The generalizing meaning remains if we turn the nouns in the above-given examples into the plural. Plural nouns in the generalizing meaning are used with no article:
Squares have four sides.
Cats are domestic animals. 2. The definite article has the specifying and the generic meanings.
a) The specifying meaning: The definite article in this meaning denotes that the following noun refers to a particular object (thing, person, etc.) or particular objects as distinct from all others of the same class:
b) The generic meaning: The definite article in this meaning shows that the following noun refers to a class of objects as a whole. The generic use of the definite article is typical of only certain semantic groups of nouns, namely, of scientific terminology, names of plants, living beings, etc:
The cat is a domestic animal.
Using the computer is as easy as falling off a log.
The telephone was invented by Alexander Bell in 1876.
NOTE 1: In the sentence The cat is a domestic animal. we can replace the cat by a cat or cats. However there is a difference in meaning. The cat is used in an abstract sense – reference is made to the whole class of cats as a whole, while by using a cat or cats we mean what is typical of any member of the class of cats. Therefore, replacement of the kind shown above is not always possible. For example, we can only say The cat was domesticated many centuries ago, but not *A cat was domesticated many centuries ago, since the statement is true of the class of cats and not of any individual specimen of the class.
NOTE 2: The noun man has no article when used with generic reference; the noun woman is used either with the definite article or with no article:
Man must change in a changing world.
(The) Woman rarely loses heart in the face of financial straits.
However in Modern English the words man and woman are more often generalized by using the indefinite article or in the plural:
A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.
The game women play is men. (Adam Smith)
ARTICLES WITH COUNTABLE NOUNS MODIFIED BY ATTRIBUTES
Attributes may be divided into limiting and descriptive.
A limiting attribute is used to point out a particular object or a number of objects as distinct from all other objects of the same class or kind. A noun with a limiting attribute is used with the definite article in the specifying meaning.
There was a crowd of people in the principal street of the village.
A descriptive attribute describes an object or a number of objects and does not affect the use of articles. The use of the article depends on the context in this case:
He was holding a rusty old key.
The rusty old key was heavy.
Attributes modifying nouns may be expressed in different ways.
a) Modification by adjectives
There are adjectives that mostly have a limiting force because of their lexical meaning and therefore call for the definite article: same, only, very, main, principal, left. right, central, following, present, former, latter, utmost, ultimate, final, opposite, extreme, previous, proper, etc.
NOTE 1: But when countable nouns modified by the above-mentioned attributes denote objects or notions without any indication of their specific features, when they are considered to be unknown to the speaker, these nouns represent the centre of new information, the rheme and they associate with the indefinite article:
She applied a final match to the laurel. (Murdoch)
At nine o’clock the lights were turned out by a main switch in the hall. (MacDonald)
NOTE 2: The adjective only is used as a descriptive attribute in combination with the nouns daughter, son, child:
Is he an only child?
b) Modification by ordinal numerals
Ordinal numerals are usually limiting attributes:
Mr Gutenmorgen was the first person to arrive.
It’s the fourth room down the corridor.
An ordinal numeral may mean “another”, “one more” and be preceded by the indefinite article:
I hope you won’t need a second reminder.
Take a third apple.
NOTE: The numerals first, second, third enter set phrases, which may be used with the indefinite or definite article according to the context or situation:
First impressions are very important.
… I have never won a first prizebut I won a second prize once.
You will need a second pair of shoes.
I have been invited to a first night at the theatre.
A third party is a party in a case different from the two principals.
Other set expressions are used with no article:
At first sight it looked like a simple accident.
John took first place in the history exam, I finished in third place.
Our personal wishes take second place to the needs of the children.
Mr Piggins plays second fiddle in the orchestra.
I said I wouldn’t do it, but on second thoughts I think I will.
I heard about it at first hand from Mrs Greengoose.
c) Modification by nouns in the possessive case
When an attribute is expressed by a noun in the Possessive Case the article or its absence mostly refers to the noun in the possessive case.
e.g. the fellow's manners (= the manners of the fellow)
a neighbour's daughter (= the daughter of a neighbour)
a lion's teeth (= the teeth of a lion)
Margaret's face (= the face of Margaret)
When the Possessive Case has the descriptive meaning the article or its absence refers to the head noun. In these patterns the Possessive Case cannot be substituted by an of-phrase, as a rule.
a children's hospital
a doctor's degree
a women’s college
a summer's day
In the example above raven's wingsdoes not mean the wings of one particular raven, but a kind of wings. So, the zero article refers to the word wings.
NOTE : the adjectives with the Possessive Case are used in the following way:
the old man's house (= the house of the old man)
the man's old house (= the old house of the man)
With the descriptive meaning the adjective refers to the head noun. e.g. a nice women's college (= a nice college for women, not a college for nice women)
d) Modification by nouns in the common case
When a head noun is modified by a noun in the common case the article refers to the head noun
The National Geographic Society building
A London Sunday paper
USE OF ARTICLES WITH COLLECTIVE NOUNS
1. The definite article in the generic meaning is used with collective nouns denoting mainly social classes or groups as individual bodies (the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, the nobility, the peasantry, the intelligentsia, the public (=people in general), the press, the clergy, the laity, the gentry, the police, the middle class, etc)
The town gardens are open to the public.
The minister invited the press to the meeting.
NOTE 1: Some of these words can be used with the indefinite article in other meanings:
Is there a public for that sort of book? (=a group of people considered in terms of its relation to a particular activity)
Britain has an official aristocracy of titled people.
NOTE 2: The nouns mankind and humanity, though used in a collective sense, take no article:
Mankind lives on a wonderful planet. 2. Partially substantivized adjectives denoting groups of people as a whole class are used with the definite article in the generic sense:
Fortune favours the brave.
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
The British drink a lot of tea. 3. The definite article in the generic meaning is also used with plural nouns which denote social classes, religious groups, nationalities only as undivided bodies: the Communists, the Republicans, the Tories, the Catholics, the Zoroastrians, the Anglicans, the Americans, the Germans, etc.
The Conservatives are against state control of industry.
USE OF ARTICLES WITH MATERIAL NOUNS
1. Names of substances are generally used with no article. The absence of the article has the nominating meaning:
Yoghurt is usually thought of as a healthy food.
Chlorofluorocarbon is now believed to be responsible for damaging the ozone layer.
The box was made of cardboard. 2. The definite article is used with names of substances when the speaker has in mind specific (restricted) quantity of substance or substance situated at some particular place. This meaning of the definite article is called restricting:
The tea I am drinking is green.
Why aren’t you eating the porridge?
The air was fresh. 3. Names of substances sometimes become countable when their meaning is changed. In these cases they follow the general rules of the use of articles with countable nouns. These nouns usually denote:
a kind or a variety of substance:
They don’t sell good coffees in the shop any longer.
Several excellent beers are brewed in this district. a portion of food or drink:
NOTE 1: Sometimes countable nouns are treated as names of substances and are used in the singular with no article. This kind of use is often found in partitive constructions after the nouns patch, bit, scrap, piece, etc:
The sky was clear of cloud.
She went round the corner of the house to the patch of garden behind the kitchen.
NOTE 2: Such countable nouns as a duck, a lamb, a turkey, a chicken, a lobster, etc. are used as names of substances when they denote meat used for food:
Is there duck on the menu?
We had cold turkey for supper.
NOTE 3: Some collective nouns denoting a group of objects thought of as a whole, behave like names of substances: furniture, machinery, equipment, crockery, hardware, silverware, china, luggage, foliage, etc.:
The police have found bomb-making equipment in the terrorist hideout.