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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 So, this is superseded by:
- The definite article, the, e.g. a car which we’re discussing = the car.
- Singular possessive determiners, e.g. a car that belongs to me = my car.
- Singular demonstrative determiners, e.g. a car located nearby = this car.
- Singular interrogative determiners, e.g. which car?, what car? or whose car?
- Possessive case nouns, e.g. a car that belongs to Bob = Bob’s car.
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.
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.