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Indefinite article

From Teflpedia

An indefinite article is a grammatical article used to express indefiniteness (i.e. lack of definiteness). In English, there are two of these; a and an. They provide a grammatical marker that the following noun is both (1) countable and (2) singular.

Contrast the definite article.

Form[edit | edit source]

Usage[edit | edit source]

An indefinite article can only used with countable singular nouns. It is not particularly “strong", meaning that other determiners may displace a/an. So, this is superseded by:

A or an?[edit | edit source]

A is generally used before consonant sounds while an is used before vowel sounds. Note that this reflects speech sounds rather than spelling. So, for example, we:

  • Use an before silent H, e.g. an hour not *a hour.
    • Americans will say an herb (with a silent H), but British speakers will say a herb (without a silent H).
  • Use a before a long U sound pronounced /ju:/:
    • Spelt beginning with U e.g. a university not *an university.
    • Spelt beginning with eu-, e.g. a euphemism, not *an euphemism.
  • Use a before a word beginning /w/ but spelt with an O, e.g. a one-time teacher not *An one-time teacher.

H-dropping is fairly common in colloquial speech, and speakers tend to use an before a dropped H, as they would before a silent H. For example !an ‘orse /ən ɔ:s/ (meaning “a horse”).

A few words used to have silent H, but no longer do in contemporary English. These include hotel, horrific and historic; more traditional texts may use an here, but most modern writers will use a.[1]

Pronunciation[edit | edit source]

The choice of whether to use a or an is determined primarily by pronunciation.

Both a and an have strong forms and weak forms. Generally, the weak form is more common, because articles tend to be unstressed. A has a strong form /eɪ/ but a much more common weak form /ə/ (schwa). Meanwhile, an has a strong form /æn/ and a weak form /ən/.

Spelling[edit | edit source]

Spelling usually follows pronunciation (see above).

In some cases, especially when we have the possibility of either a or an being used, an indefinite article is represented by a/an or a(n). These are often found in gapfill questions.

Pedagogy[edit | edit source]

The indefinite articles are introduced at beginner level. The meaning can be explained simply; “a means one.”

Low level learners will often say a when they need to say an — this is usually worth correcting. Intermediate and advanced speakers sometimes slip and use 'a' before a vowel sound, particularly if there is a pause between the article and noun; this includes native speakers, so it’s probably not worth correcting if it’s a slip. Correct in writing.

Students with languages that lack articles, such as Chinese and Russian speakers, will often drop articles because of L1 interference.

References[edit | edit source]