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The indefinite article: 'a' and 'an'

Level: beginner

We use the indefinite article, a/an, with singular nouns when the listener/reader does not know exactly which one we are referring to:

Police are searching for a 14-year-old girl.

We also use it to show that the person or thing is one of a group:

She is a pupil at London Road School.

Police have been looking for a 14-year-old girl who has been missing since Friday.

Jenny Brown is a pupil at London Road School. She is 1.6 metres tall, with short, blonde hair. When she left home, she was wearing a blue jacket, a blue and white blouse, dark blue jeans and blue shoes. 

Anyone who has information should contact the local police on 0800 349 781.

We do not use an indefinite article with plural nouns or uncount nouns:

She was wearing blue shoes. (plural noun)
She has short, blonde hair. (uncount noun)

The indefinite article 1

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The indefinite article 2

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The indefinite article 3

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We use a before a consonant sound:

a banana (starts with /b/) a university (starts with /j/)

and an before a vowel sound:

an orange (starts with /o/) an hour (starts with /au/)

Note that the choice of a or an depends on sound, not spelling.

The indefinite article 4

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Comments

Hello,
I'm doing the first question of "The indefinite article 3" where the correct answer is "We met for coffee last week" and not "We met for a coffee last week"

Could you explain me if it is beacause we apply the "uncountable noun rule" or if it is becouse of an exception

(in my mind a coffee stand for "a cup of coffee")

Hello emiliano_81,

Both 'met for coffee' and 'met for a coffee' are possible in this context.

When we are talking about meals we do not use an article, so we can say 'meet for breakfast', 'meet for lunch' etc. 'Meet for coffee' is similar to this.

As you say, we can also say 'a coffee' with the meaning 'a cup of coffee', and it is also correct here.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Sir,

I have posted this comment on WhatsApp :

'Exception cannot be rule'

I have omitted the article 'a' here :

My thinking is that this is a very general statement and is applicable everywhere in the world, and for all instances - and so this is a qualified case for zero article.

Am I right here sir, or should it be 'Exception cannot be a rule'

Please help me clear this.

Thanking you

Regards

Dipak Gandhi

Hello Dipak Gandhi,

Exception is a countable noun and not an abstract concept, so we would use a plural form if we wanted to generalise. The same applies to rule:

Exceptions cannot be rules.

 

The rules for article use with general meaning are quite complex:

 

>> a + singular countable noun <<

we can use this with general meaning when we are talking about something which defines the group. For example:

An elephant is an impressive sight.

In other words, being an impressive sight is one of the characteristics of an elephant; if we saw an animal and it was not impressive then we could be fairly sure that it was not an elephant. We are talking about any elephant here - it is true of them all.



>> the + singular noun <<

we can use this with general meaning when we are talking about our image or concept of the noun. For example:

The elephant can live for over sixty years.

Here we are not talking about a real elephant, but rather the concept of 'elephant' in our heads.

 

>> no article + plural countable noun or uncountable noun <<

we use this to talk about what is normal or typical of a type. It may or may not be true of all individuals but it is typical of most. For example:

Swedish people are tall.

Here we are talking about the average height of Swedes, not any particular person or concept.


The distinctions are subtle but sometimes can be important. For example, we can say with general meaning:

Whales are in danger of becoming extinct.

The whale is in danger of becoming extinct.

However, we cannot say:

A whale is in danger of becoming extinct.

This is because being in danger of becoming extinct may be true but it does not define the whale.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you sir ! Here 'The whale is in danger of extinction' is the image I have of whales, isn't it ? And 'Whales are in danger of extinction' is a general statement - and so without any article, isn't it ?

Hello Dipak Gandhi,

Yes, that's correct. Well done!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,

Could you please advise which of the following options is correct or more common and why (generally speaking about horses):

A horse is a fast animal.
The horse is a fast animal.
Horse is a fast animal.

Thanks!

Hi Angie,

Interesting question! Options 1 and 2 are both correct and common. There's a slight difference, though.

  • Option 2 (the horse) seems to talk about the whole species in general.
  • Option 1 (a horse) seems to talk about an imagined indiviudal horse that is representative of the species.

In most situations, this difference won't be important and both options would work.

Option 3 isn't correct. An article is needed before horse.

Does that make sense?

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks indeed - it does make sense!

What would be the correct sentence?
1-Raghu is an actor and writer.
2- Raghu is an actor and a writer.
Can only article 'an' be written before actor and article 'a' be omitted before writer, even though 'an' cannot be used with writer…? Please clarify.
Thank you.

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