Article Usage in TOEFL Grammar

This lesson will teach you article usage in TOEFL English grammar.  Using a, an, the correctly will help you to perform more competently during the speaking and writing sections of the TOEFL exam.  Article usage is extremely complex in English grammar. Therefore, this lesson makes no attempt to explain all the possible uses of these three important noun markers.  Rather, this lesson will look at some of the most common uses of these words.

Article Usage in TOEFL Grammar

Article Usage in TOEFL Grammar: The Indefinite Article

First, follow these general guidelines when using a/an:

  • Use a/an before singular count nouns when that noun is mentioned for the first time: I see a bird right now.
  • Use a/an before a singular noun making a general statement about all people or all things of a certain class: A distance runner spends many hours running each week. (All distance runners spend a lot of time practicing weekly.)
  •  Use a/an to express price, speed, and ratio: 55 miles an hour; three times a day
  •  Do not use a/an before plural nouns or before noncount nouns: Tumbleweeds grow in Southern California; I got advice from someone yesterday.

Article Usage in TOEFL Grammar: The Definite Article

Second, several rules explain how to use the definite article the:

  • Before a noun whose identity is already known or when it is clear what is being mentioned: I saw a bear. The bear was climbing up a pine tree.  The magazines on that table are Sports Illustrated editions. I went to the university. (a particular university)
  • Before a singular noun referring to a species or group: The mountain lion lives in North America. (Mountain lions, as a species, live in North America.)
  • Before adjectives used as nouns:  The poor need assistance from the government, especially those with mental and physical disabilities. (the poor = poor people)
  •  When there is only one of something: The sun sets in the west every day.

Article Usage in TOEFL Grammar: Proper Nouns and the Definite Article

Third, the is usually used with canals, deserts, forests, oceans, rivers, seas, and plural islands, lakes, and mountains:

  • the Suez  Canal
  •  the Mojave Desert
  •  the Pacific Ocean
  •  the Mississippi River
  •  the Sea of Cortez
  •  the Hawaiian Islands
  •  the Great Lakes
  •  the Rocky Mountains

The is typically not used with names of countries and states, continents, or cities:

  • Japan, China, Mexico, Brazil, Spain
  •  California, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas
  •  North America, Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Europe, South America
  •  Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul, London, Nyrobi, Montreal, New York City, Mexico City

Using the Correct Article

Fourth, a large number of means several or many and takes a plural verb. The number of refers to the group and therefore takes a singular verb:

  • A large number of students are attending the geology seminar tonight.
  • The number of students attending the seminar this year was more than double the number from last year.

The nouns below have differing means depending on whether or not they are used with an article:

  • Prison
  • Jail
  • School
  • Bed
  • College
  • Home
  • University
  • Court
  • Church

No article: Susan went to bed. (Susan went to sleep. In this case, bed is used to refer to the general idea of sleep.)

With the: Susan went to the bed. (Susan walked over to a particular bed. However, it does not necessarily mean that she went to sleep on the bed.)

With a:  Susan purchased a bed. (Susan bought an item called a bed.)

Articles cannot be used with other noun markers such as possessive adjectives (her, his, our), possessive pronouns (mine, yours, ours), and demonstratives (this, that, these, and those)

  • To attend the concert was her idea.
  • Those ideas merit further discussion.

Non-count nouns usually are not used with an article to refer to something in general. However, articles may be used to show a specific meaning.

  • Many people want peace in the world. (Peace in a general sense.)
  •  The peace was broken when Israeli and Palestinian soldiers fired weapons at each other.
  • Gaining knowledge in college helps one learn a profession.
  • Students who have a knowledge of computers will be functional in many types of jobs.

Quiz 1: The Indefinite Article

Which underline word needs to be rewritten in order for the sentence to be correct? Pay particular attention to the indefinite articles a and an.

1. In desperate need of a counsel, John phoned his best friend to talk about his breakup with his girlfriend.

2. The student turned in his homework on times.

3. Driving faster than 75 miles an hour on the freeway may causes some drivers to get tickets.

4. The teacher spends a lot of time preparing lessons and grading students’ work. (Teachers’ general duties are discussed.)

5. From about February to May, if you live in Southern California, you should pull a weeds so that your property does not become cluttered.

6. Lana went to library in search of the Wall Street Journal.

7. Exercising at least three times a week will help you stay physical and mentally healthy.

8. Paying for decent pair of running shoes will cost you about $75 a pair.

9. Doctors recommend that children drink a milk every day.

10. A professor gave a lecture about human rights violations in Hong Kong. A professor claimed that China was going against its promise not to take away freedoms and democracy from Hong Kong residents. (The same professor is mentioned in  both sentences.)

Quiz 2: The Definite Article

Which underline word needs to be rewritten in order for the sentence to be correct?  Pay particular attention to the definite article the.

1. A state of California has a staggering population of more than 40 million.

2. The skunk, whose white and black stripes warn predators to stay away, emit a strong offensive odor when cornered.

3. Rich, or those people making more than $250,000 annually, pay up to $40 in Federal income taxes.

4. Elite athletes have a specific diet, sleep cycle, and exercises regimen.

5. Book was on a desk in a classroom. The book contained emotional writings from a woman who had been terrorized by ISIS.

6. Elderly in the United States get social security payments when they turn 65.

7. The California ground squirrel burrows in the ground, mates three times year, and eats nuts.

8. The research papers that the chemistry students submit last week was finally graded.

9. The moon is responsible for oceanic tide.

10. Idea of landing on the moon was in response to a space race competition between the United States and Russia.


Quiz 3: Definite and Indefinite Article

Which underline word needs to be rewritten in order for the sentence to be correct?  Pay particular attention to the indefinite articles the.

1. John went to a college yesterday with a couple of friends.  All of them acknowledged that attending the college in the future would be a good way to get a high-paying job. (A specific college is being referred to in the first sentence.)

2. Among the most populated states, New York, Texas, and the California have populations exceeding 20 million.

3. Japan is a country comprised of many small island.

4. I used to hike in Rocky Mountains, located outside of Denver, Colorado.

5.  Outside the admissions building right now, the large number of students are protesting the increased tuition costs imposed earlier this year.

6. The number of cars on Interstate 15 North has increase to almost 95 million cars annually.

7. The continent with the largest population is Asia, with the country of China at top with more than 1.5 billion people.

8. I went to Tokyo last year with some other students who had decided to join exchange program between the United States and Japan.

9.  John and his wife Sally purchased home near downtown Los Angeles.

10.  My house is about a 1.5 hour drive from Pacific Ocean.

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Michael Buckhoff,

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