Writers of English as a Second Language (ESL) have the worst time with articles. These pesky little words include “a”, “an” and “the”. Native speakers have seen and used them so many times that we have no problems with articles; but, these three simple words bedevil non-native writers. So, let’s take a look at articles and their usage.
We call “a” and “an” indefinite articles; that is, they don’t usually point to a specific thing that follows them. We say “an apple”, not referring to a specific apple, such as, “I want THE apple with the worm hole.”
Also, we do not use “a” or “an” with non-count nouns. Obviously, the non-count nouns refer to something that can not be counted, such as news, snow, knowledge and courage (the list is very long). You might say, “Vijay asked Raj for news of the merger.” You would not say, “…’a’ news of the merger or ‘an’ news (although in a different context you could say ‘the’ news)”.
We can use “the” with most nouns, especially if we already know the noun. We might say, “A project for ABC Company is coming our way. The project will keep us busy for months.”
As you saw in the previous sentence, the noun “project” was already mentioned and that signals that you may use “the” before the next use of the word “project,” as you are referring to something you already know.
Sometimes certain words signal an occasion to use “the”. These words include superlatives such as “most” and “best”. In that case you will use the word “the” before a noun, as in the following example “That was the best seminar I have ever attended.” Or, “He has the most e-mail of anyone I have ever known.”
However, you need not use “the” with singular proper nouns. For example, you need not say, “I attended the Carnegie Mellon University (unless you intended to emphasize). However, you will use “the” with plural proper nouns, such as, “I attended Carnegie Mellon University in the United States.”
Lastly, do not use “the” with plural nouns when they mean “all” or “in general”, such as “Clients are wonderful people.” Here you mean that all clients are wonderful people or clients are wonderful people in general.
When you are uncertain about whether or not to use an article, read your writing aloud. If it sounds bad, then it is probably misused.