Common Errors in English: A, AN, THE


600+ Confusing English Words Explained

#1 – Do NOT use a/an with plural or uncountable nouns

  • a fact = OK
  • a facts = INCORRECT
  • an information = INCORRECT
  • an advice = INCORRECT
  • a piece of advice = OK
    (“piece” is countable)
  • a pants / a glasses / a scissors = INCORRECT
  • a pair of pants/glasses/scissors = OK
    (“pair” is countable)
  • a rice = INCORRECT
  • a grain of rice = OK
    (“grain” is countable)
  • a work = INCORRECT
  • a job / a task / a project = OK

Click here to review countable and uncountable nouns

#2 – A/An follows the SOUND, not the LETTER

  • a university
    (pronounced like you – ni – ver – si – ty)
  • an umbrella
    (pronounced like um – brel – la)
  • a hat
    (h is not silent)
  • an hour
    (h is silent)
  • an X-ray
    (pronounced like ex – ray)
  • an NGO
    (pronounced like en – gee – oh)
  • a non-governmental organization
    (when we say the full words, they start with the N sound)

#3 – Do NOT use a/an without a noun following it

  • I am a Japanese. = INCORRECT
    (“Japanese” is an adjective, not a noun)
  • I am Japanese. = OK
  • He is an intelligent. = INCORRECT
    (“intelligent” is an adjective, not a noun)
  • He is intelligent. = OK
  • He is an intelligent man. = OK
    (now it’s OK because we have the noun “man” after “an intelligent”)

#4 – THE can be used for singular/plural, and for countable/uncountable nouns, when talking about something specific (not general)

  • I love pasta.
  • I love the pasta at that restaurant.
  • That store sells furniture.
  • The furniture in my living room is all new.
  • Vegetables are good for you.
  • The vegetables at the market are always fresh.
  • I need advice.
  • The advice you gave me was very helpful.

#5 – Do NOT use THE for proper nouns:

Names of continents/countries*/states/cities/streets:

  • We’re traveling around Asia for three months.
  • I’d like to visit Russia.
  • Paris is my favorite city in Europe.
  • Have you ever been to California?
  • They live on Rosewood Avenue.

*Exceptions: the United States (the U.S.), the United Kingdom (the U.K.), the Philippines, the Czech Republic, the Central African Republic, the Marshall Islands

Companies & Universities*

  • My uncle works at Samsung.
  • Microsoft reported high profits this quarter.
  • She graduated from Harvard.
  • New York University is very large.

*Exceptions: If the university’s name BEGINS with “university,” then use “the”:
the University of Pennsylvania, the University of  Miami

Languages & Holidays

  • I’m studying Spanish.
  • He speaks Italian.
  • My whole family gets together at Christmas.
  • The office will be closed on New Year’s Day.

#6 – With other places, THE is sometimes used:

Do NOT use THE with individual lakes or mountains:

  • Mount Everest is the highest mountain the world.
  • We went sailing on Lake Ontario.

Use THE with oceans, rivers, valleys, deserts, mountain ranges, points on globe:

  • the Pacific Ocean
  • the Amazon River
  • the San Fernando Valley
  • the Sahara Desert
  • the Swiss Alps, the Rocky Mountains
  • the North/South Pole, the Equator

Do NOT use THE with the following places:

  • I’m going home.
  • She’s at work.
  • He’s in jail.
  • We attend church.
  • My kids went to bed.
  • My brother’s in high school.
  • My sister’s in college.

Use THE with the following places:

  • I went to the bank.
  • Let’s go to the movies.
  • He gets home from the office around 7.
  • My grandfather’s in the hospital.
  • I’ll stop by the post office after lunch.
  • I caught a taxi to the airport.
  • I’ll pick you up at the train station.
  • We’re waiting at the bus stop.
  • We took my son to the doctor.
  • I’m going to the dentist this afternoon.
    (in this case, “the doctor” and “the dentist” are short for “the doctor’s office” and “the dentist’s office”)

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