FunctionsThe definite article marks a phrase as uniquely identifiable and can be used with any common noun: singular (the house), plural (the houses), uncountable (the bread). It also forms an essential part of some proper names: The Hague, the Pennines, the Vatican. A/an is used with singular countable nouns: Give me a bag, not *Give me bag. The form a is used before consonant sounds (a book, a house) and the semi-vowel/j/ (a European, a UN official, a year). The form an is used before vowel sounds, however spelled: an American, an honour, an MP, an uncle. There is some uncertainty about words beginning with a pronounced h and an unstressed first syllable, and practices vary: a/an hotel, a/an historical event. For more detail see the entry for H. Exceptionally and for emphasis, a/an is used before an uncountable noun with the meaning ‘an example of’, as in: They displayed a breathtaking indifference to my problems.
Zero article and ellipsisSome grammarians use the term zero for the absence of an article before uncountable and plural nouns, such as wine and bottles in He puts wine in bottles. They argue that a zero article has the same sort of indefinite meaning as a/an before singular nouns. This convention and the usage it describes is distinct from the suppression of articles in certain kinds of writing and speaking, such as note-taking (have suitcase, will travel: I have a suitcase and I am willing to travel) and elliptical instructions (as in dramatic scripts, leaves room: the actor leaves the room).
Specific versus genericThe distinction of specific and generic cuts across the distinction between definite and indefinite. Specific reference is to particular people or things: The Browns live next door to me; Shut the door; I went to a marvellous party last night; Help yourself to coffee; Biscuits are on the table. In the last two examples, with the zero article, some could be added to the uncountable noun coffee and the plural noun biscuits without an appreciable change of meaning. Generic reference is to people or things as examples of a class in general: The kangaroo is an Australian animal, A kangaroo is an Australian animal, Kangaroos are Australian animals. As these examples illustrate, if the nouns are countable generic reference can be shown by the singular with the definite or indefinite article and the plural with the zero article. However, the with the plural has generic reference in two cases: nationality nouns (The Afghans are engaged in a civil war) and adjectives denoting a class of people (The poor are always with us).
A further distinction is sometimes made between specific reference (where particular people or things are intended) and non-specific reference (where instances of the kind of people or things are intended): for example, I want to buy a secondhand car or Sue is looking for a partner, where a secondhand car and a partner do not have reference to a specific car or partner. For non-specific relations, the indefinite article is used with singular countable nouns (as in the two examples above) and the zero article or some is used with plural and uncountable nouns: I want to buy (some) secondhand cars; She is looking for (some) partners.
ar·ti·cle / ˈärtikəl/ • n. 1. a particular item or object, typically one of a specified type: small household articles. 2. a piece of writing included with others in a newspaper, magazine, or other publication. 3. a separate clause or paragraph of a legal document or agreement, typically one outlining a single rule or regulation: [as adj.] Article 7 of the treaty. 4. Gram. see definite article, indefinite article. • v. [tr.] (usu. be articled) bind by the terms of a contract, as one of apprenticeship. PHRASES: an article of faith a firmly held belief: it was an article of faiththat women must free themselves. the genuine article a person or thing considered to be an authentic and excellent example of their kind.
the Articles of War regulations made for the government of the military and naval forces of Great Britain and the United States; the term is recorded from the early 18th century.
See also Thirty-nine Articles at thirty.
Series or subdivisions of individual and distinct sections of a document, statute, or other writing, such as thearticles of confederation. Codes or systems of rules created by written agreements of parties or by statute that establish standards of legally acceptable behavior in a business relationship, such as articles of incorporation or articles of partnership. Writings that embody contractual terms of agreements between parties.