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How do I know whether to use the definite (the) or indefinite (a, an) article, and when to omit it altogether?

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    I can't wait for the correct answers here. There is the pretty simple set of guidelines, and then there are all these nasty exceptions! – SF. Jan 24 '13 at 9:24
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Use the definite article when you know which particular thing or set of things it is you're talking about.

We're going on a summer holiday! Let's get in the car.
The apples in my local shop look delicious.

Use the indefinite article when you don't know exactly which thing it is you're talking about.

I need a new car.
I'd love some apples.

Use no article when you're talking about the complete set of things.

I like cars.
Apples give me indigestion.

I've already come across one exception to this, so they are out there:

"That means the dog is a lot more efficient at making use of the nutrition in starch than the wolf." - BBC News

In this situation, they are referring to dog and wolf as particular species, rather than a particular dog or a particular wolf.

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Definite vs Indefinite

(Bold is article used, Italics is word of interest)
To choose between these two kinds of articles:

You need to know if you are referring to any random object, or a specific one.

For eg.
Let's say there are two people - John and Sam.

Example 1

John: I need something to read.
Sam: Well, I can recommend a book.

Example 2

John: That is my book!
Sam: John, I am not giving you the book back.

So, in the first example, John & Sam are talking about any book. So Sam uses 'a'. But in the second example, John is claiming a book to be his. Therefore, he & Sam are talking about a specific book: John's book.

Article vs No Article

Do not use any articles when you are not talking about an object by itself, but maybe a category or set of objects.

Example

I like to read books.

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    Interesting what happens in Example 1 when Sam is speaking. I wouldn't say Sam is talking about any book – Sam could be talking about a very particular book (namely, the one he is about to recommend). (By the way, I'm not disagreeing with your answer, I'm just pointing out how this can get a little bit tricky every now and then.) – J.R. Jan 24 '13 at 10:50
  • But Sam doesn't know which book. In a sense, there is some mystery as to which book he is talking about. – Siddhartha Jan 24 '13 at 10:52
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    Oh, I completely disagree with that. I can certainly say, "I can recommend a book," and have a very particular book in mind at the time of my utterance. Perhaps I didn't disagree with your original answer, but I think you're off-the-mark in your elaboration. – J.R. Jan 24 '13 at 10:59
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    Sorry, I meant John when I said Sam. – Siddhartha Jan 24 '13 at 11:00
  • Ah, that makes more sense – but I still think that serves as a good example of how tricky this can be at times. – J.R. Jan 24 '13 at 11:01

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