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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

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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

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

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

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")

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

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