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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


The indefinite article 2


The indefinite article 3


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




Hello Navreet Bhardwaj,

Terrible has a negative meaning (very bad) in both of your examples.

The most common positive use of the word is as an adverb modifying a positive adjective: terribly good, terribly nice etc. This is similar to the way we use awfully.

If you have an example of terrible used in a positive sense as an adjective then please post it and we'll be happy to comment.


The reason the is used in your other example is presumably that a specific table is being referred to and both the speaker and the listener know which table it is: the table in front of them, or the main dining table in the house or room where they are.


In a more general context, there is a phrase sit at the table which does not refer to any particular table, but is rather a fixed expression used in contrast to eating standing up, eating on the go (as you walk or drive) or sitting with a plate on your knees:

I don't like eating in the car. Meals are important to me. It's a family time and I like everyone to sit at the table together.



The LearnEnglish Team

1) a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
2) Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England

The two sentences are from Pride and Prejudice. Why there is an article "a" (of a good fortune) in the first sentence, but there isn't one in the second sentence (man of large fortune)? Even though these two sentences have a very similar structure and said pretty much the same thing?

Thank you.

Hi learning_always,

The first thing to remember is that these are not examples of contemporary English, and so they use formulations which are no longer normal today.


The first sentence is about possession. The phrase in possession of means the same as who has or who owns. Just as we would say who owns a car or who has a house, we say in possession of a car or in possession of a house, or, as in this example, in possession of a large fortune. In this context, a large fortune means a lot of money.


The second sentence is not about possession, but rather about personal characteristics. We can say a man of good character or a man of bad luck, and the phrase a man of good forune has a similar meaning. In this context good fortune means good luck.



The LearnEnglish Team

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!



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.



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.



The LearnEnglish Team