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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Submitted by foofighters12 on Mon, 22/01/2018 - 19:40

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That was quite helpful

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Fri, 29/12/2017 - 19:05

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Hello dear Kirk, Thank you. Thank you sir.

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Thu, 28/12/2017 - 11:42

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Hello respected team, Which one is true in the following sentence? Send him (in or at) the beginning of second class to the counselor. (in or at ) the beginning I told you to not touch the wire. In the following sentence why we use (in)? I am taking a math course in school. Thank you for the help.

Hello Hosseinpour,

In the first sentence, 'at' is correct since it mentions the beginning of something. I suppose 'at' is also correct in the second sentence, though I'm not sure what the context is so I can't say for sure. 'in the beginning' vs 'at the beginning' are explained on this page, with examples -- I'd suggest you take a look.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by drsachin on Wed, 20/12/2017 - 06:00

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Hi! The indefinite article point no: 3 She has short blonde hair. (= uncount noun) Can it be as following She has short blonde hair(s) instead of hair?

Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 20/12/2017 - 08:18

In reply to by drsachin

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Hello drsachin,

It's grammatically correct to use 'hairs' (i.e. the plural noun), but it implies that she has few of them. To speak of people's hair, the default is to use the uncount form -- the count form implies something quite unusual.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Tue, 19/12/2017 - 20:14

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Hello respected sir, Thank you for the help, thank you.

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Sat, 16/12/2017 - 06:45

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Hello dear team, I have questions about the use of in/on with street. A asks B: Where are you now? B: I am in the street/ on the street. Can we say: the car is parked at the other side of the street. Longman dictionary: young people living on the street. If we walk by the scene and actually see it, should we say young people are living in or on the street. Thank you.

Hello Hosseinpour

We use 'in the street' to describe something which is physically present:

there is a man standing in the street

I couldn't drive any further because a tree was lying in the street

 

We use 'on the street' when we are talking about buildings and addresses:

there is a very nice cafe on that street

I'll meet you outside the bank on the street with the fountain

 

The phrase 'live on the street' means to be homeless and it is a fixed expression; we do not use 'in' with this.

I think the phrase 'on the other side (of the street)' is by far the most common. We use 'at' when the phrase changes to 'at the other end (of the street)',

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Wang Zijian on Tue, 28/11/2017 - 12:20

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I have a question: How to differentiate between the two usages - 'one of a group' and 'a job' - of indefinite articles? For example: She is a student at London Road School. Which is the reason for using 'a'? Thank you!

Hello Wang Zijian,

As far as I know, there is no easy way to distinguish these two uses from the sentence alone. The context would probably do this. For example, if this was the answer to a question, the question would probably indicate which use this is. In a general sense, they are the same use, as we can think of a profession as a group of people.

I hope this helps you.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Jasrap on Sat, 09/09/2017 - 20:26

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Hi, I am a little confused with the use of the artilces , can you explain me the difference between the following and are they grammatically correct? A zebra is balck and white. The Zebra is black and white

Submitted by liton on Fri, 25/08/2017 - 13:24

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Why a is placed before little or few although these are not noun?

Hello liton,

In these cases, 'a' is a part of a larger phrase -- in other words, 'a little' is a unit that can't be separated. 'little' and 'a little' mean different things, and 'few' or 'a few' also. This Cambridge Dictionary page explains the difference quite well, so I'll refer you to it. But if you have any questions, please let us know.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Omyhong on Sun, 18/06/2017 - 06:41

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Hi, teacher. Can you please tell me if the following sentences are correct? Can I skip the article for cup and jug? 1. She bought a bottle, a cup and a jug. 2. She bought a bottle, cup and jug. Thank you. Omy

Hello Omyhong,

Both sentences are correct. In 2, the three items sound as if they are a unit more than in 1 (e.g. perhaps they are sold together, though not necessarily), but in most cases the two sentences would mean the same thing.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Itnay on Sat, 20/05/2017 - 00:52

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Can I just write 'Dog likes to eat meat' rather than 'A dog likes to eat meat'? Is it grammatically correct?

Hello Itnay,

No, I'm afraid that isn't grammatically correct. Of course, most people will understand what you are saying but in terms of the grammar it is incorrect.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Thu, 11/05/2017 - 20:15

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Sir, Why don't we use any article before the noun 'Difficulty' and Are there such more nouns before which we don't use any article ? Please help...

Hello SonuKumar,

'Difficulty' is usually uncountable so the indefinite article is rare, but it is possible. The definite article is quite common. Whether or not an article is required depends upon the context, of course.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by amol on Mon, 08/05/2017 - 08:05

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Hello, On which basis do we separate words having 'mute h' & 'pronounced h'?

Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 09/05/2017 - 07:03

In reply to by amol

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hello amol,

'an' is always used before words with a true silent 'h' (e.g. 'heir', 'honest', 'hour') at the beginning. When a word begins with an 'h' that is pronounced, there is a group that traditionally was preceded by 'an' (e.g. 'historical', 'hotel' -- these words come from French), but my impression is that most native speakers use 'a' before these words these days. That's how I'd encourage you to pronounce them.

If you're not sure how to pronounce a word, the Cambridge Dictionary has audio files for most -- see 'hour' for example.

By the way, please do not post your questions more than once. It can take us time -- days, even -- to answer your comments and posting them a second time will only delay our answer.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Artem1983 on Sun, 30/04/2017 - 19:58

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In the next page it reads: "We use the definite article... to refer to a system or service: You should tell the police" But here you use this example: "Police (no 'the') have been searching for a 14 year-old girl who has been missing since Friday". Why?

Hello Artem1983,

'Police' can refer to the institution, in which case we use 'the', or it can refer to the individuals who make up the police force (meaning something like 'police officers'), in which case it has no article. Thus I would say:

The police are searching for the missing person. [the institution/organisation]

Police are searching for the missing person. [a group of officers]

We do not use 'police' in this way with a singualr meaning, however.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by aavf79 on Sun, 23/04/2017 - 23:14

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Hi, Could you please tell me which of the following is correct? 1) "An empathetic, dependable, methodical and creative team player who thrives in high-pressure environments." 2) "An empathetic, a dependable, methodical and creative team player who thrives in high-pressure environments." 3) "An empathetic, a dependable, a methodical and a creative team player who thrives in high-pressure environments." Thank you! Best regards, Ambar

Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 24/04/2017 - 06:51

In reply to by aavf79

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Hi Ambar,

The first and third versions are correct; the first is the best stylistically, in my opinion, and is the one which would be most widely used.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by vcorteso on Fri, 31/03/2017 - 22:42

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Hi, Why in the example "Police have been searching for a 14 year-old girl who has been missing since Friday" use "have and not has? Police represent with personal pronoun it, no?, there for we should use "has been" Thank you

Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 01/04/2017 - 16:41

In reply to by vcorteso

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Hello vcorteso,

In British English, plural verbs are often used with third person subjects that refer to a group of people, such as 'police', 'Manchester United', etc. In other varieties of English, such as American, 'has' would be the correct form. 

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Dina Shcherbakova on Thu, 09/03/2017 - 02:06

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Dear LearnEnglish Team, It is well-known that in expressions with a number of places there in no article after a preposition. For example, My sister is at school. But what about these sentences? My aunt is a teacher. She works at a (?) school. My aunt is not at school now. Yours sincerely, Dina

Hello Dina,

We use an article or not depending on how we view what we are talking about. We use such prepositional phrases without an article when we are focusing on the activity in the place. For example, if we say 'My sister is at school', we're focusing on what she is doing there (studying, spending her daily time there, etc.), not merely her location – in fact, she could be at any school in theory. If we use an article, we are thinking more of the place as a specific location.

It's a subtle distinction which is not always important, but I hope that helps you make sense of it!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bugmenot (not verified) on Wed, 08/03/2017 - 14:37

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Hello, Could you please explain how this stance: "5. We use a/an with a singular noun to say something about all things of that kind: A man needs friends. (= All men need friends)" is different from the one one from the next article (about "the"): "to say something about all the things referred to by a noun: The wolf is not really a dangerous animal (= Wolves are not really dangerous animals)" To me this situations look the same, but this article advises to use "a", and the next article prescribes to you "the" in such situations. Which is correct? Thank you.

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 09/03/2017 - 07:10

In reply to by bugmenot (not verified)

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Hello bugmenot,

Peter M wrote a lengthy explanation of this a few months ago. Please take a look at it and then if you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to ask us.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by naghmairam on Thu, 02/03/2017 - 05:37

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Hello One and 'a' have similar meaning. For example in the following sentences: Pick a boy from the team. Pick one boy from the team. Can we use 'one' and 'a' interchangeably in this sense ? Is there a difference between their meanings? Thanks

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 02/03/2017 - 07:03

In reply to by naghmairam

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Hello naghmairam,

In most cases we would use 'a' here. We would use 'one' when for some reason it is important to emphasise that one and not two or three (etc) will be picked. In other words, 'one' would be used when there is a possibility of confusion about the number.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by HSCD on Sun, 26/02/2017 - 16:03

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Hi Sometimes I hear people say "an a book" or "an a word to ..." or so on. Could I have more info about these consecutive articles using?

Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 26/02/2017 - 18:18

In reply to by HSCD

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Hello HSCD,

Phrases such as 'an a book' or 'an a word' are not correct. Perhaps what the people meant was 'and a book' or 'and a word'? When speaking quickly, the word 'and' can be pronounced as 'an' or even just 'n'. Would that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Yura_Tea on Sun, 19/02/2017 - 15:16

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Thank Kirk for the comment and the link. It is really helpful. Best wishes to you! :D

Submitted by Yura_Tea on Sun, 19/02/2017 - 09:33

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Hello! I've noticed that sometimes people say 'a long time ago', 'have a nice time'. Is it correct to use 'a' in these cases? 'Time' is uncountable, isn't it? :)

Hello Yura_Tea,

The word 'time' is used in many, many different ways, and can be used as count noun or uncount noun. If you follow the link, you'll see that even when it's used as a count or uncount noun, it is still used in many different ways.

In 'a long time', it is used as a count noun referring to a period of time (follow the link). It's not very specific at all, as 'a long time' could be interpreted as just a few minutes in some contexts or hundreds of years in others – what is meant depends on the context.

In 'a nice time', 'time' is also used as a count noun referring to an occasion (follow the link). If you have a good time, it means you enjoyed yourself.

I hope that helps you get a handle on it!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by belka30 on Mon, 13/02/2017 - 12:00

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hello! I 've got question about using article with words headache, stomachache, toothache backache earache Do English peole use "a" before these words or not?

Hello belka30,

The answer is that sometimes they do and sometimes they do not; or, more precisely, some people use 'a' and some people use no article. Both forms are possible:

I have toothache.

I have a toothache.

However, 'headache' is an exception to this and always has 'a' before it, unless it is a second reference in which case 'the' is used.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by naghmairam on Wed, 08/02/2017 - 07:01

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Hi, Is the definite article required before the names of all famous buildings? For example, India Gate. I found that names of some buildings do not have 'the' before them. Thanks

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 08/02/2017 - 08:38

In reply to by naghmairam

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Hi naghmairam,

No, the definite article is not always required. It really depends on the particular building. For example, we say 'the White House' and 'the Louvre' but 'Buckingham Palace' and 'York Minster'. I'm afraid these simply need to be remembered as you come across them.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ahmednagar on Thu, 26/01/2017 - 17:11

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hello sir, how are you? 1)what did i do wrong in a past? 2) they need details about his past. 3) who was i in the past? my question is why writer used indefinite article in 1 example and definite article in 3 example? why not in 2 example? please explain these sentences individually that'd be nice. thanks advanced

Hello ahmednagar,

We do not generally provide explanations of sentences from elsewhere, as I'm sure we've already mentioned. This is because they are often dependent on a context which we do not have, may not be accurate or may be spoken or written for a certain rhetorical effect which we cannot know. In other words, we are commenting on sentences which we may not fully understand.

As an example, your first sentence is not correct. I suggest you make sure you have good examples from which to draw conclusions regarding the language system. Otherwise you will end up confused.

We do not use both a possessive adjective (like 'his', 'my', 'their') with an article. If you use one then you do not use the other. Therefore you can say 'his past' or you can say 'the past', but not 'his the past' or 'the his past'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

thank you so much and I'll bear in mind your suggestions next time.

Submitted by naghmairam on Mon, 23/01/2017 - 05:01

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In Article 2, it has been mentioned that except for the illnesses mentioned there, other illnesses have no article. But I checked in Oxford and other dictionaries, other illnesses such as fever and cough have indefinite article before them. How is that? Thanks

Hello naghmairam,

I'm afraid I don't see any reference to illnesses on this page. Could you please explain more specifically where you saw this on our site?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by yoo on Sun, 15/01/2017 - 18:57

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can you tell me why do you need an indefinite article in following sentences. apples are a health food since the food is uncountable noun. My grandfather is a little sick vs my grandfather is sick.I have been living here for a long time. A tomato is a fruit. the sick, fruit and food are all noncountable nouns.