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The indefinite article: 'a' and 'an'

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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

Dear Sir/Madam,
Could we use “the” before “lack of”, “lots of”, “many”, “plenty of”...?
Ex: I like to eat apple due to the many benefits.
If not, could you please help me to explain it? Thank you!

Hello Oliver T1,

We can use 'the' before 'lack of' and 'many', but not before 'lots of' or 'plenty of', and not before 'much'. It's a very confusing area, I'm afraid!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. Could you please help? I'm really confused about articles. Which one is correct or both?
- (A - The) station is a place where passengers can get on or off a train.
Thank you.

Hello. Are the two sentences Correct? If so, what is the difference?
Some colleagues say that "An" is not correct!!!!!!
- An engineer has an interesting job.
- The engineer has an interesting job.
Thank you

Hello Ahmed Imam,

The second 'an' is correct in both sentences.

These are examples of the use of articles for general reference and it is possible to use all three article options (indefinite, definite and no article). However, there are differences in meaning, and the differences are quite subtle.

 

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.

 

I hope that helps to clarify it for you. It is a complex area.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

So in a MC test, I used the following sentence:
(The - A) tiger is a member of the cat family.
Now, I think that it wasn't fair to make my students choose between them.
What do you think of it?
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

In your example, I would say that 'the' is the best choice. We would not, I think, use 'a' here because being a member of the cat family does not express the character of all tigers.

 

It's not our place to comment on your choices as a teacher, I'm afraid, and it wouldn't be appropriate since we do not know your students and what they have learned to date.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello everyone,

In Indefinite Article 4:

5. I want to buy a soft drink. Can you lend me a euro?

Why do we use a euro instead an euro?

7. Why do you want to do an MBA? You told me you weren't interested in business.

Why do we use an MBA instead a MBA?

8. That's a long time! Does he have a US passport?

Why do we use a US passport instead an US passport?

Hello Arun Sharma,

The use of 'a' or 'an' is determined by the first sound of the next word, not the first letter.

 

'Euro' begins with a vowel ('e') but is pronounced with the same first sound as 'yellow' or 'yes': 

euro  /ˈjʊə.rəʊ/

 

'MBA' begins with a consonant but is pronounced with the same first sound as 'elephant' or 'elf':

MBA /ˌem.biːˈeɪ/

 

'US' begins with a vowel but is pronounced with the same first sound as 'you' or 'yes':

US  /ˌjuːˈes/

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Use of an or the?
The Bermuda Triangle which is also known as the Devil's Triangle is an/the area located on the North Western Atlantic.
Do we say an area or the area.
The argument is that since the area is already mentioned (the Bermuda Triangle ) it should be the and not an.

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