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 Ahmed Hassan on Sat, 02/10/2021 - 01:02

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Hi
is there a difference when we say "The police" instead of '' Police " in this sentence "Police are searching for a 14-year-old girl.".

Hello Teacher Peter
What about these "I will study until the school starts" and "I will study until school starts". are they the same with and without the definite article before the word "school"?

Hello Ahmed Hassan,

The second sentence (without 'the') suggests that the speaker is a student at the school. The first sentence does not suggest this. They may be simply using a room which they will have to vacate when lessons begin, for example.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nevı on Sun, 12/09/2021 - 20:54

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Hi incredible team I want to know something about indefinite articles. For example, when I say 'I need a computer.' This means' I need one computer not two. 'or ' I need any computer not specific computer. I get confused. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks!

Hello Nevi,

I'm not sure what your question is here! It seems like you have a pretty good grasp of the topic as your explanation of your example is correct. If you substitute 'the' for 'a' here then you would be asking about a specific and known item, not just any item.

 

I want a computer = any computer is fine; it doesn't have to be a particular one

I want the computer = you know which one I want; maybe it's the only one we have, or maybe it's one we've talked about already

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Sorry teacher I couldn't explain well. So I saw that we can use a/an instead of 'one'. I mean, when I say 'I want a computer.' Does that mean 'I want just one computer but two, three or four computer etc. Or like you wrote any computer is fine; it doesn't have to be a particular one. You'd be really helping me out.

Hello Nevi,

We use 'a' with singular nouns, so it refers to one item rather than more than one. It also tells us that the speaker is not talking about a particular computer. The answer to your question, therefore, is that 'a' carries both of these meanings, not just one of them.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hmm For example when I say I have a brother. ' A' here means one, doesn't it?

Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 15/09/2021 - 13:23

In reply to by Nevı

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Hello Nevi,

In 99.9% of situations people would mean that they have one brother by saying this. In a very specific (and unusual) context in which the speaker was, for example, trying to hide the fact that they have more than one brother, it could mean that the speaker has at least one (not a particular) male sibling, but that is quite unusual. As I said, in the vast majority of situations, they would say 'I have two brothers' (or however many brothers there are) instead of 'I have a brother'.

As I said, the unusual case I mentioned is extraordinarily rare, so in general you can count on this meaning that the speaker has one brother.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hmm So it refers to one item rather than more than one. I wonder if I can use indefinite article instead of one? Like" I need a telephone. " -->I need one telephone but 2, 3 or etc. telephones.?

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 18/09/2021 - 07:49

In reply to by Nevı

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Hello again Nevi,

I think you're looking for a grammatical rule here where it's really more the intention of the speaker which matters.

When a person says 'I need a telephone' they're generally not talking about the phone itself but rather the call: I need to call someone. The number of phones is not really in their mind. The only time you would say 'I need one phone' is when for some reason two or three or more would cause you problems for some reason.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Wed, 02/06/2021 - 06:45

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Hello. Which one is correct? Why not the other? 1- Mr Ashraf is such a man that you can trust him. 2- Mr Ashraf is such the man that you can trust him. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

I don't think we would use either construction. You need to include an adjective of some kind:

Mr Ashraf is such an honest man (that) you can trust him.

Mr Ashraf is so honest (that) you can trust him.

Alternatively, you could use a phrase like this:

Mr Ashraf is the kind of man (that) you can trust.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 05/02/2021 - 19:36

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Hello. Which article to use in the following sentence without extra context? - Martin likes badminton, but he doesn’t often get (a - the) chance to play. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both are possible. I don't think there's any difference in meaning so it's really a question of personal choice and linguistic background (idiolect and dialect).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by tanipetrush on Sun, 31/01/2021 - 11:11

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Hi, I have a question regarding the first exercise. Shouldn't we say "This isn't very unusual; a lot of people are afraid of THE spiders.", since it's the sencond time the spiders are mentioned? Thank you in advance! Tania

Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 01/02/2021 - 07:51

In reply to by tanipetrush

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Hi tanipetrush,

There is no article here because we are talking about spiders in general. If we were talking about a particular spider then we would use 'a spider' for first mention and 'the spider' later (or 'spiders' and 'the spiders' for more than one spider), but for general meaning we do not use any article.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by dipakrgandhi on Sun, 27/12/2020 - 06:40

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Hello Sir, This is the sentence I came across in a blog : Everyone can't wait for 2020 to be history and with it all the shake ups it brought. Sir, why it should not be with indefinite article '2020 to be a history' . What difference in meaning would it make with and without 'a' . I must say that the blogger is an aclaimed writer and is unlikely to commit a grammatical mistake. Please share your view sir ! Regards Dipak R Gandhi

Hello Dipak,

The phrase '...is history' is a fixed expression. It means something is done, finished or ended. It can also mean that something or someone has been defeated.

 

We only use 'a history' in the context of a book: this is a great history of the Roman Empire.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Mon, 21/12/2020 - 14:59

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Hello. Which one is correct? 1- We travelled to Sudan. 2- We travelled to the Sudan. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

I think 'Sudan' is becoming more and more common, but you can still hear 'the Sudan'. However, this is a political question as much as a language question following the secession of South Sudan in 2011.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by dipakrgandhi on Fri, 18/12/2020 - 09:00

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Exercise 4, last question : why an indefinite article before 'US' in 'does he have - US passport' - generally it is 'the' before 'US'

Hi dipakrgandhi,

Good question! It's because in this sentence, US is describing the other noun, passport. US isn't the main noun in the phrase. So, the article we choose depends on the main noun, passport (not on any other nouns that describe it).

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Great answer Sir ! So 'US' here is working like an adjective ! Understood ! Thank you Regards Dipak Gandhi

Submitted by dipakrgandhi on Fri, 18/12/2020 - 08:22

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Sir, very recently I read a sentence having in it an indefinite article 'a' before 'most' - I cannot recall the sentence now. Earlier also I have come across sentences having 'a' before 'most'. Would you kindly enlighten us when can we use an indefinite article before most, which is otherwise preceded by the definite article 'the' the most of the times. And is it correct to use 'the' after ' "the" ' - the way I have used in the previous sentence. Thank you Regards Dipak R Gandhi

Hi dipakrgandhi,

Yes! You may have seen some examples like these.

  • It was a most excellent meal.
  • This is a most dangerous situation.
  • She was a most valuable member of the team.

In those examples, the meaning is 'very' or 'extremely'. This is different to, for example, She was the most valuable member of the team, which means she was the 'number one most valuable' or the absolute best.

Using the indefinite article with most in this way is a relatively formal in style. We can only use this structure with most - we can't use it with single-word superlatives (e.g. we can't say 'It was a best meal').

 

About your sentence, it should be most of the time (without the before most, and with time instead of times). 

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you sir ! I should have looked into dictionary for all the meanings of 'most', but I never thought of 'most' having any other meaning than superlative adjective !

Submitted by knownman on Tue, 20/10/2020 - 19:07

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Hello the Learn English Team, I wanted to ask a sentence that I quoted from www.teachingenglish.org.uk It's about a webinar speaker. About the speaker Steve Walsh is Professor of Applied Linguistics and Communication in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Newcastle University, UK, where he was, until recently, Head of Department. I sometimes read a text in English and write it down. When I read I didn't realise but when I wrote it something came to my attention. In the above sentence, why wasn't it said "Steve Walsh is a Professor ..." with the indefinite article "a" And why wasn't it said "Head of the Department" with the definite article "the" As I know we use articles before profession and we use the definite article before Department for the reason it is specific and mentioned before. Thanks for answering. Have a beautiful day.

Hello knownman,

There are several possibilities here, depending on whether you are using a title or a description of a position:

Steve Walsh is Professor of Applied Linguistics and Communication

This is his title

Steve Walsh is the professor of Applied Linguistics and Communication

This is his position; there is only one such position.

Steve Walsh is a professor of Applied Linguistics and Communication

This is his position; there are several such positions; he is one of several.

 

As the word 'professor' is capitalised, I assume the write was using it as a title, so no article makes sense.

 

'Head of Department' functions in a similar way.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 20/10/2020 - 08:44

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Hello. Please! Which one is correct? Why? - Cairo Metro will extend from Imbaba to Cairo airport. - The Cairo Metro will extend from Imbaba to Cairo airport. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

The second version (with 'the') is correct. Railway networks, including underground networks, usually take the definite article unless we are dealing with the name of a company:

the New York Metro

the London Underground

the Trans-Siberian Railway

but

Britsh Rail (a company)

Virgin Trains (a company)

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by emiliano_81 on Wed, 07/10/2020 - 09:26

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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")

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 08/10/2020 - 07:24

In reply to by emiliano_81

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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

Hi Peter, I read your comment and tossed some scenarios around in my head. What do you think is going on here? Let's meet for coffee. Let's meet for a coffee. Let's meet for drink. Let's meet for a drink. What rule does the third sentence not follow? Coffee is a specific type of drink, but there are many varieties and forms of coffee, so 'coffee' on its own would seem rather general like 'drink.'

Hello Ike Kyoshi,

In 1, 'coffee' is an uncount noun, whereas in 2 it is a count noun. The noun 'drink' is normally a count noun (as in 4). It can also be used as an uncount noun, but we don't use it sentences like 3. There is no obvious rule that explains this -- it's just the way we use the uncount noun 'drink'.

Hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your reply, Kirk. Peter's comment that the implied "Let's meet for [a cup of] coffee," and your comment about count vs. non-count helps. In example 3, "Let's meet for drink" breaks the rules, but "Let's meet for drink[s]" works. This signals that the rule has to do with count vs. non-count. It's got nothing to do with the generality of "coffee" and "drink." Now I'm trying to form a sentence that will clearly state the rule . . .

Hello Ike Kyoshi,

I don't think it's only related to the noun being countable or uncountable. For example, 'wine' is similar to coffee in that we can say 'I'll have a glass of white wine' or 'I'll have a white wine', but we wouldn't say 'Let's meet for wine' in the way that we can say 'Let's meet for coffee'.

 

I think the explanation is that certain activities can be used not only to represent a particular action (in this case, drinking something), but also to represent a social event. 'Meet for coffee' describes a social situation which is something of a tradition. It's similar to 'meet for lunch', I would say. As such, its use is rooted not in grammar but rather in social norms and traditions.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by dipakrgandhi on Sat, 12/09/2020 - 18:08

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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

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 13/09/2020 - 08:19

In reply to by dipakrgandhi

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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 ?

Submitted by Angie on Wed, 26/08/2020 - 10:22

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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!

Submitted by Jonathan R on Wed, 26/08/2020 - 13:52

In reply to by Angie

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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

Submitted by Angie on Wed, 26/08/2020 - 13:58

In reply to by Jonathan R

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Thanks indeed - it does make sense!

Submitted by amrita_enakshi on Mon, 27/07/2020 - 13:52

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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.

Hello amrita_enakshi,

If you are writing this for publication somewhere, then probably the style guide used by the publisher will prefer one over the other, but in most situations, both of these sentences are correct and mean the same thing. In my own writing, I'd choose 2 over 1.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team