The indefinite article: 'a' and 'an'

Learn how to use the indefinite article a (or an) and do the exercises to practise using it.

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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Soumis par Sheikh Salauddin le sam 30/05/2020 - 10:53

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Can we say 'a cat and dog','a man and woman' and the like?

Hello Sheikh Salauddin

Yes, you can say that, though in some cases it can be better to say, for example, 'a cat and a dog'. It depends on the situation and what you mean.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Navreet Bhardwaj le dim 10/05/2020 - 13:16

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Hello Sir, I have two questions. 1. In the sentence 'He is terrible at keeping his accounts in order.' 'He has been a terrible father.' I have noted that terrible has both positive and negative meanings. But how to know when terrible is used in positive sense and when in negative sense? 2. In the sentence 'Come and sit at the table.' why 'at the table' why not 'on the table.' Please expalin to me.
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Soumis par Peter M. le lun 11/05/2020 - 07:07

En réponse à par Navreet Bhardwaj

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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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par learning_always le sam 04/04/2020 - 04:24

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Hi, 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.
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Soumis par Peter M. le sam 04/04/2020 - 07:47

En réponse à par learning_always

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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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Oliver T1 le ven 24/01/2020 - 22:13

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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

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Soumis par Ahmed Imam le mer 22/01/2020 - 18:29

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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.
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Soumis par Ahmed Imam le mar 12/11/2019 - 19:13

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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

Soumis par Arun Sharma le sam 14/09/2019 - 08:33

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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

Soumis par Karen111 le sam 13/07/2019 - 14:58

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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.

Hello Karen111

It depends on the context this statement was made in, but in any case the choice of article depends on the mention of the idea of an area in the Atlantic.

Imagine you open up an encyclopedia and you read out loud what you first see, and it is an entry about the Bermuda Triangle that begins with this sentence (though please note there should be commas after 'Triangle' and 'Triangle'). In that case, where it is being mentioned for the first time, 'an' would be the correct choice. 

On the other hand, if you were talking about different kinds of maritime zones and comparing their locations or characteristics, then 'the' would be the correct choice, since it's already been mentioned in the context you're speaking in.

Hope this helps.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Soumis par Sramit le mar 04/06/2019 - 12:19

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1. A cow is a pet animal. 2. The cow is a pet animal. is the use of articles a & the correct in the above sentences.
Hello Sramit, Both sentences are grammatically possible; the context and the speaker's intention will determine which is more appropriate. The use of articles for general meaning is quite complex in English. I'll summarise it below: ~ >> a + singular countable noun > the + singular noun > no article + plural countable noun or uncountable noun
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Soumis par Ahmed Imam le mer 23/01/2019 - 10:32

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Could you please help me? The child has been drawn into (a - the) life of crime but he is really a good child. Which article is correct? Why? Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam

It really depends on what you mean and what the context is, but in general I'd probably use 'a' here, assuming that the idea 'life of crime' hasn't yet been mentioned.

I'm sorry if our answers are not quick enough for you. We are very busy creating new content these days, which is one of our highest priorities.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par sam61 le mer 02/01/2019 - 14:17

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Hi, Do the below sentences mean the same thing? A lion is a ferocious animal. The lion is a ferocious animal. Lions are ferocious animals. Also, Do these mean the same? Computers that are infected by viruses should be taken to a technician. The computers that are infected by viruses should be taken to a technician. (I feel like in this case, the sentence is about particular computers.) A computer that is infected by viruses should be taken to a technician.
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Soumis par Kirk le mer 02/01/2019 - 20:51

En réponse à par sam61

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Hi Sam61

Ultimately, the meaning of words and sentences is dependent on their context, but in general, yes, those three sentences about lions mean the same thing, though, as I suspect you've already noticed, the use of 'the' here is not very common. In the other set of examples, you are right, 'the' implies that the person reading or hearing the sentence has already heard about the infected computers.

The definite article 'the' before 'lions' is used to speak about an entire class of living things or objects. In this case, it's lions, but it could be a species of plants, musical instruments, a make of automobile or even personal computers, but note that it wouldn't be appropriate to speak about infected computers, as that is not a class of computers but rather a smaller set of all computers. You would need to be speaking about all computers (e.g. 'The computer revolutionised communications in the early 21st century') for the use of 'the' to be appropriate, and even then, it would be more common to just say 'Computers' instead of 'The computer'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Soumis par Ahmed Imam le ven 26/10/2018 - 22:04

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Could you please help me? Is the word "position" in the following sentence right to use or we should use another word. The university has an international position as a centre of chemistry research. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Yes, I think that sounds fine. There are several other ways to say this as well:

The university has an international position as a centre of chemistry research.

The university has an international reputation as a centre of chemistry research.

The university has international standing as a centre of chemistry research.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Akong le jeu 11/10/2018 - 15:04

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Sir, I want to know if I'm correct in the usage of "an" in the construction below "Get an Education and not Degree"

Hello Akong,

'An' is correct here, but you also need an article before 'degree:

Get an education and not a degree.

 

As an aside, it is of course possible to get both an education and a degree...

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par ali shah le dim 24/06/2018 - 12:27

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Hello Sir! 1.''John was appointed as superintendent of police, City.'' 2. ''He was posted as assistant director research wing.'' ''superintendent'' and ''assistant director'' are countable nouns. But in the first sentence, ''a'' and ''an'' are not put before superintendent and assistant director respectively. Would it be correct if I put ''a'' and ''an'' before before it respectively? Sir please explain it to me, and suggest me a link, if there is, where I get to know where one should not use an indefinite article before countable nouns.
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Soumis par Peter M. le lun 25/06/2018 - 07:17

En réponse à par ali shah

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Hello ali shah,

There is a choice here. It is possible to use an article or not.

When no article is used the terms Superintendent of Police, City and Assistant Director, Reseach Wing are titles (and shoudl be capitalised), just as we would say elected President or crowned King.

When an article is used the terms are used in a descriptive sense rather than as titles. If you say a superintendent then we understand that there are several superintendents of police, and John is one of them. If you say the superintendent of police then we understand that there is only one such position (but it is a descriptive term, not a title) and John now holds it.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par omarmohamed99 le ven 08/06/2018 - 13:41

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i want to ask a general question if you don't mind what is the difference between those three pages for grammar ( English grammar / beginner grammar / intermediate grammar ? and that page in cambridge web site ? and finally how could you advice me to provide my grammar and what can i do to speak well ?

Hi again omarmohamed99,

Generally, the grammar covered in 'Beginner grammar' is lower level than the grammar covered in 'Intermediate grammar'. The 'English Grammar' section isn't classified by level and is a bit more systematic. If there is a specific point you need help on, please ask us and we will help direct you to the appropriate pages.

There is some advice on how to get the most out of our site and how to use it for various purposes (such as improving your grammar and/or speaking) on our Frequently asked questions page.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par omarmohamed99 le jeu 07/06/2018 - 20:29

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dear sir please i want more explain and more examples for this case ( next 1. We use the indefinite article, a/an, with count nouns when the hearer/reader does not know exactly which one we are referring to) i can't understand it clearly
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Soumis par Kirk le ven 08/06/2018 - 01:59

En réponse à par omarmohamed99

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Hello omarmohamed99,

I would suggest you read our Articles 1 and Articles 2 pages. The Cambridge Dictionary also has a long entry on articles that could also be useful.

If you have any specific questions about a specific sentence, please don't hesitate to ask us.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Floyd le mer 06/06/2018 - 12:30

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Hello, my Greek friend has asked the following question which I can't help with the grammar point. we can say 'a great many ...., but not a very few ...' why?

Hello Floyd,

It's helpful to consider the difference between a few and few first of all.

We use few when we want to emphasise that there are not enough. For example, if I say I have few friends then I am suggesting that I am rather lonely.

We use a few when we want to emphasise that there is a satisfactory number. For example, if I say I have a few friends then I am suggesting that I am happy with what I have.

Given this, very works well with few, showing a lack of something. However, it does not conceptually fit with a few in the same way that we don't say very enough. It's not that it is impossible to say a very few for rhetorical effect, but it is unusual.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Or Yahalom le jeu 05/04/2018 - 13:12

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Hello, It mentioned that we don't use the indefinite article with plural nouns. However, as far as understand, in the following sentence from your website you use the indefinite article before a plural noun ("a" before few differences): "British people and American people can always understand each other – but there are a few notable differences between British English and American English" (https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/quick-grammar/british-english-and-american-english). Can you please explain it? Thanks you!
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Soumis par Kirk le jeu 05/04/2018 - 19:49

En réponse à par Or Yahalom

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Hi Or Yahalom,

Do you mean the 'a' in 'a few notable differences'? In this case, 'a few' is a determiner that goes before plural nouns. In this case, it's as if 'few' means something like 'group of several'; even though it looks singular, it has a plural meaning and is only used before plural nouns, which then take plural verbs.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Crokong le jeu 29/03/2018 - 06:21

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Hello. I often see a sentence with the structure "what + a + noun" like the following: What a morning! What a mess! What a hotel! What a girl! etc. My question is what does "what a" actually mean? Does it mean "really"?

Hello Crokong,

The phrase 'What a...!' is a fixed expression showing amazement at the scale of something or how extreme something is. We don't break up phrases like this an assign concrete meaning to each individual part, but rather understand the phrase as a whole as a unit.

The meaning can be understood as something like 'What an amazing example of .... that is!'

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for the explanation Peter M. So, in the sentences like 'what a mess!', 'what a waste of time!', does this mean "what an amazing mess!", "what a amazing waste of time!"?

Hello Crokong,

Yes, that's correct. The construction can be used for both positive (What a performance!) and negative (What an idiot!) reactions.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I understand now. In positive reactions "what a...!" shows amazement. It means amazing, brilliant, great. But in negative reactions, what is the meaning of "what a...!"? I need an adjective here so that it's clear for me.

Hi Crokong,

I'd recommend thinking of it this way: 'what a ...!' shows a strong opinion or feeling, which can be positive or negative.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par amrita_enakshi le mar 06/02/2018 - 11:38

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Hello sir Should we say ' an English soldier ' or ' a English soldier' ?
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Soumis par Kirk le mar 06/02/2018 - 17:17

En réponse à par amrita_enakshi

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Hello amrita_enakshi,

'an' is the correct form here, since the word 'English' begins with a vowel sound.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par RamMin le ven 02/02/2018 - 16:25

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Good day, I think I am confused between these rules : "to say something about all the things referred to by a noun" - for definite article "The" and "5. We use a/an with a singular noun to say something about all things of that kind:" for indefinite article "a and an " Please clarify! Thank you in advance.