Do Uncountable Nouns Need the Article “a” and “the”?

When an uncountable noun describes a general concept, do you need to have an article, “a” and “the” in front of it?

Here’s how to decide whether you need to put an article.

You don’t need an article

When you’re talking about a general concept, omit the article.

Example #1
“In economics, inflation is a sustained increase in the general price level of goods and services in an economy over a period of time.” – Wikipedia

This sentence simply defines what “inflation” is. It talks about “inflation” as a general concept. It does not need an article.

Example #2
“The besiegers used starvation to induce surrender.” – The Free Dictionary

In this sentence too, “starvation” is a concept, or a collection of symptoms. So it does not need an article. When I say something is a “concept,” I’m not saying it’s not real! Yes, hunger is real and it doesn’t feel good when you’re hungry… but you cannot count “starvation!”

You need the article “the”

You need the article “the” if you’re talking about something specific.

Example #3

“The impact of the inflation of the 1970s and 1980s was hardly even, and this is always the case.” – Forbes

In this sentence, “inflation” is not a general concept. It’s specifically about the inflation of the 1970s and 1980s. That is why it needs the article “the.”

Example #4
“They were charged with the starvation of children in their care.” – The Free Dictionary

In this sentence, “starvation” was experienced by children. It’s describing the children’s suffering. So it needs the article “the.”

When the noun is preceded by another noun, in almost all instances it needs the article “the.”

Example #5
“With the OPEC inflation, those in the oil industry, while facing the same rising prices at the gas pump, grocery store, etc., as everyone else, were actually better off than they had been before because their salaries and profits rose at a higher rate.” – Wikipedia

It’s talking about not just any “inflation,” but the inflation of OPEC. The OPEC inflation. The same rule of article applies here.

You need the article “a” or “an”

In many cases, the article “a” or “an” is used when you qualify or quantify a noun with an adjective.

Example #6
A little inflation encourages you to buy sooner – and that boosts economic growth.” – BBC

In this sentence, we’re not talking about the general concept of inflation. Neither are we talking about the specific inflation of 1970s. We’re talking about the situation in which there is a little inflation. The word “inflation” gets a qualifier “little.” So you need an article “a.”

It’s similar to “a bit of salt” and “a lot of pressure.” You can’t count salt or pressure, but “bit” and “lot of” quantify them.

Get it?

This is not an exhaustive set of rules. There are exceptions but this is generally a good guideline to set you on the right direction.

The best way to internalize these grammar rules is to write a lot. Copy good sentences and write them down in your notebook. Repeat the process until it feels so natural for you to write a sentence like, “In economics, inflation is a sustained increase in the general price level of goods […]” so that you don’t have to think about whether to put the article “an” or “the” in front of the noun “inflation.”

Keep writing English.

About Josh

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언어와 문화 학습을 좋아하는 일본계 미국인 Josh 입니다. 영어와 일본어를 하고 제3개국어인 한국어는 20대에 배웠습니다. 통번역사, 프로젝트매니저, 마케터로서의 경험을 바탕으로 여러분이 스마트하게 보일 수 있는 영어 스피킹 노하우를 공유하고 있습니다. 비즈니스 영어와 발음과 엑센트에 관한 강좌를 실시하고 있습니다. 분야: 비즈니스 영어, 프레젠테이션, 발음 교정 現: 유튜브채널 SplashEnglish 운영前: 서울교육대학교, 김미경 영어 스피치 트레이너. 협동: EBSe, JEI 재능, 메가스터디, 제주항공, 캠블리, 코어소리영어, AranTV. 다룰 줄 아는 악기: 탬버린.좋아하는 음식은 타코스.

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