An explanation of the uses of “a”, “an” and “the” in English.
Articles are used in English just as in the Latin based languages only they are not used as extensively. In other words the person will not be using them to address objects that are in the feminine or masculine forms. There is however a reference to distinct objects or objects which are specific as opposed to generalities and objects, which are in common use. In some cases, the new speaker has to remember that the same sort of article is not used in their native tongue like French as it is in the English.
The “a” is used to talk about something that is non-specific and that the individual is referring to without any specific reference to any single item. The learner can appreciate knowing that references are made to objects that are mass-produced and the speaker does not want to be particular when talking about a single unit. So if I say there is a book on the table, the person knows that I am not thinking of any particular title. If on the other hand I say “I put the book on the table”, I would be intending that the listener knows what book I am talking about. This is cardinal when learning the difference between the ‘a’ and the ‘the’. ‘An’ serves the same function as a but is placed before an object or descriptive word that begins with a vowel as in “I had an awful day” or “Here is an apple”.
‘The’ is used to refer to a specific thing be a real or imagined object, be it abstract or concrete. So I can say “I had the time of my life” and I would be referring to a specific event in my life, which is an abstract notion because it is intangible. I can equally say, “The ketchup is on the table”. Here I am referring to a specific product, which is at a specific location. The ketchup isn’t on any table and the listener knows where the object’s location is.
‘The’ is also used to refer to titles and proper names of things. So we say, “The Eiffel Tower is in Paris” where “the” precedes the proper name of the tower and this is not just any tower in the world. We would use “the” before mentioning when someone has a specific title or station in life like “Prince Charles is the heir to the British throne”. He isn’t just any heir since his lineage is specific to the British throne and not another one.
‘The’ is used before geographical and man-made installations or references but not to all. So we say “The Nile River is the longest in the world”. We don’t do the same thing when we refer to lakes or mountains as we say, “ Mount Royal is in the middle of Montreal” and not “The Mount Royal is in the middle of Montreal”.