“a” versus “an”: a guide to indefinite articles

“a”, “an” and “the” are articles.

There are 2 types of articles in English: Indefinite articles and definite articles.

“a” and “an” are indefinite articles. Indefinite means “not specific”. Usually, we use “a” and “an” to talk about non-specific nouns. I explain what that means later on in this lesson.

“the” is the definite article. Usually, we use “the” to talk about specific nouns.

Articles only modify nouns. They do not modify adjectives.

Examples:

I have a car. I have a nice car. I have a nice.

Use of the indefinite article and definite article

Example:

I found a dog yesterday. I am going to give the dog to Jane.

In the first sentence, “dog” is mentioned for the first time. For the reader, it is not a specific dog. So we use the indefinite article “a“.

In the second sentence, “dog” has already been mentioned in the first sentence. Now, it is a specific dog for the reader. So we use the definite article “the“.

In this lesson, you will learn the main uses of the indefinite article (a / an)

“a” or “an”

  • We use “a” before a consonant sound:
  • Examples:
  • a cat      /kæt/ a dog     /dɒɡ/ a boat     /bəʊt/
  • It is the consonant sound which is important, not the spelling:

a university /ˌjuː.nɪˈvɜː.sɪ.ti/

  1. “university” begins with a vowel letter, but it is a consonant sound. So we use “a”
  2. (To hear these sounds correctly, watch the Youtube video at the bottom of this page.)
  3. We use “an” before a vowel sound:

Examples: an apple     /ˈæp.l̩/ an orange     /ˈɒr.ɪndʒ/ an umbrella     /ʌmˈbrel.ə/

  • It is the vowel sound which is important, not the spelling:
  • an hour     /aʊər/
  • “hour” begins with a consonant letter, but it is a vowel sound. So we use “an”
  • (To hear these sounds correctly, watch the Youtube video at the bottom of this page.)

“a” or “an” – Examples with adjectives

Remember the rules:

“an” before a vowel sound. “a” before a consonant sound.

The choice of “a” or “an” depends on the sound of the beginning of the word directly after the indefinite article. Sometimes that word is a noun and sometimes it is an adjective. By adding an adjective with a different first sound to the noun that it is modifying, the choice of indefinite article changes.

Examples: Yesterday, Mark watched a film.    /fɪlm/ Yesterday, Mark watched an excellent film.    /ˈek.səl.ənt/

I am eating an apple.     /ˈæp.l̩/ I am eating a green apple.     /ɡriːn/

Grammatical use of “a” or “an”

We only use “a” or “an” before a singular countable noun:

I bought a shirt. Jane is eating an orange.

We do NOT use “a” or “an” before a plural countable noun:

I bought a shirts. We use “some”: I bought some shirts.

We do NOT use “a” or “an” before an uncountable noun:

Mark is eating a soup. We use “some”: Mark is eating some soup.

Uses of the indefinite article a / an

To refer to a non-specific thing or person (noun)

It is not important which specific thing or person we are talking about. and / or

It is the first time we mention it.

A, an, and the: how to use articles in English

by Liz Walter​

Many learners of English have problems with articles (the words a, an and the), especially when they don’t exist in their own language. This blog looks at some of the basic rules.

The number one rule is this: if a word is countable (e.g. one book, two books), you must always use an article (or my, his, etc.):

  • I read a book. √
  • I read book.
  • This is true even if there are adjectives before the noun:
  • He drives an old car. √
  • He drives old car.

Never use a or an with a word that is plural (e.g. books, trees) or uncountable (e.g. water, advice):

  1. I asked her for advice. √
  2. I asked her for an advice.
  3. Note that we use a in front of words that start with a consonant sound (a horse, a carrot) and an in front of words with a vowel sound (an apple, an elephant).

The next most important thing to understand is the difference between a/an and the. Basically, we use a/an when we don’t need to say which thing we are talking about. We use the to talk about a specific thing:

  • I caught a train to London. (it doesn’t matter which train)
  • The train was late. (that particular train was late)
  • We often use a when we mention something for the first time, and then change to the when it is clear which thing we are talking about:

He was talking to a man. The man was laughing.

She gave him a present. The present was very expensive.

  1. We also use the when it is obvious which thing we are talking about or when there is only one of something:
  2. Could you shut the door, please?
  3. I cleaned the bathroom this morning.
  4. He travelled around the world.
  5. The sun is hot today.
  6. If you stick to the rules above, you will be correct in almost all cases. However, there are a few exceptions, and the following are the most useful ones to learn:
  7. We don’t use a/an before the names of meals:
  8. We had lunch at noon.
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Articles: A versus An // Purdue Writing Lab

Summary:

This short handout deals with which article to use before a noun — “a” or “an.”

The choice of article is based upon the phonetic (sound) quality of the first letter in a word, not on the orthographic (written) representation of the letter.

If the first letter makes a vowel-type sound, you use “an”; if the first letter would make a consonant-type sound, you use “a.

” However, even if you follow these basic rules when deciding to use “a” or “an,” remember that there are some exceptions to these rules.

“A” goes before words that begin with consonants.

  • a cat
  • a dog
  • a purple onion
  • a buffalo
  • a big apple

“An” goes before words that begin with vowels:

  • an apricot
  • an egg
  • an Indian
  • an orbit
  • an uprising

Exceptions

Use “an” before a slient or unsounded “h.” Because the “h” does not have any phonetic representation or audible sound, the sound that follows the article is a vowel; consequently, “an” is used.

  • an honorable peace
  • an honest error

When “u” makes the same sound as the “y” in “you,” or “o” makes the same sound as “w” in “won,” then a is used. The word-initial “y” sound (“unicorn”) is a glide [j] phonetically, which has consonantal properties; consequently, it is treated as a consonant, requiring “a.”

  • a union
  • a united front
  • a unicorn
  • a used napkin
  • a U.S. ship
  • a one-legged man

For more information, please visit the OWL's page on using articles.

Using Articles—A, An, The | Scribendi

Put simply, an article is a word that combines with a noun. Articles are actually adjectives because they describe the nouns that they precede. In English, there are only three articles: the, a, and an. However, the three are not interchangeable; rather, they are used in specific instances.

The following is some advice from our expert English editing staff regarding how to properly use articles.

Indefinite articles (a and an)

If indefinite articles are the proverbial thorn in your side, the good news is that you don't need a lot of grammatical jargon to understand their usage. You simply need your ears (okay, and maybe just a little grammatical jargon).

In English, a and an are indefinite articles, which means that they don't refer to anything definite or specific.

If someone were to say, “Give me an apple,” you might be inclined to run out and pick one from the tree outside, or you may even run to the store and buy one.

By using the word an, the speaker has let you know that he or she is looking for any apple rather than a specific one.

The same can be said for the article a. If someone told you there's a dog on the road, you would probably want to go out and save it before a car came by.

Furthermore, you would know it's not your best friend's dog because the speaker chose to use the word a rather than call the pooch by name.

Hence, it's understood that the dog on the road is one of the millions of dogs in the world and is therefore not specific.

How do I know which one to use?

That's a very good question. Fortunately, the answer is quite simple. It's about listening to the words you're using. The rule for indefinite article usage is as follows:

  • Use a before nouns (or adjectives) that start with a consonant sound.
  • Use an before nouns (or adjectives) that start with a vowel sound.
  • Here are some examples from our English editing professionals:

Please give the dog a cookie. (The noun cookie starts with a consonant sound, so a must be used.)

Please give the dog a delicious cookie. (Our editing professionals have put the adjective delicious in front of cookie, but as you can see, delicious still starts with a consonant sound, so a must still be used.)

That's an old car. (In this case, the word after the article is old, which starts with a vowel sound. Consequently, our English editors must use an.)

Remember that you're listening here. This isn't about the letter c or d being a consonant or the letter o being a vowel; it's about the sound they make (i.e., vowel sound or consonant sound). Here's another example that might help you understand:

I need to work for an hour before we go to dinner.

APA Style 6th Edition Blog: Using "a" or "an" With Acronyms and Abbreviations

by Jeff Hume-Pratuch

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Dear Style Experts,

How do you tell whether to use a or an with abbreviations? I assume that an abbreviation is treated just as if it were a word , but I'm having trouble with some examples: Should it be an HIV patient or a HIV patient? For some reason, neither one looks right to me.

–An Anxious Author in Axminster

Dear Anxious,

The general rule for indefinite articles is to use a before consonants and an before vowels. The trick here is to use your ears (how the acronym is pronounced), not your eyes (how it's spelled).

HIV (pronounced “aitch eye vee”) begins with a vowel sound, so an HIV patient is correct. HIPAA (pronounced “hippa”) begins with a consonant sound, so a HIPAA form is correct.

H is only one of a handful of consonants in English whose names start with vowel sounds. Here are some more examples of acronyms that might trip you up, depending on whether they are pronounced as words or as a series of letters.

  • a FASB rule; an FOB airfield
  • a LAN schematic; an LAPD memo
  • a MOMA exhibit; an MRI test
  • a NICU nurse; an NPO order
  • a SAM base; an SAT exam

There are also two vowels in English whose names start with consonant sounds. Can you spot them?

Articles

Articles are words that define a noun as specific or unspecific. Consider the following examples:

After the long day, the cup of tea tasted particularly good.

By using the article the, we’ve shown that it was one specific day that was long and one specific cup of tea that tasted good.

After a long day, a cup of tea tastes particularly good.

By using the article a, we’ve created a general statement, implying that any cup of tea would taste good after any long day.

Confused about articles?

Grammarly provides suggestions as you write.

Get Grammarly

English has two types of articles: definite and indefinite. Let’s discuss them now in more detail.

The Definite Article

The definite article is the word the. It limits the meaning of a noun to one particular thing.

For example, your friend might ask, “Are you going to the party this weekend?” The definite article tells you that your friend is referring to a specific party that both of you know about.

The definite article can be used with singular, plural, or uncountable nouns. Below are some examples of the definite article the used in context:

Please give me the hammer.

Please give me the red hammer; the blue one is too small.

Please give me the large nail; it’s the only one strong enough to hold this painting.

Please give me the hammer and the nail.

The Indefinite Article

The indefinite article takes two forms. It’s the word a when it precedes a word that begins with a consonant. It’s the word an when it precedes a word that begins with a vowel.

The indefinite article indicates that a noun refers to a general idea rather than a particular thing.

For example, you might ask your friend, “Should I bring a gift to the party?” Your friend will understand that you are not asking about a specific type of gift or a specific item. “I am going to bring an apple pie,” your friend tells you.

Again, the indefinite article indicates that she is not talking about a specific apple pie. Your friend probably doesn’t even have any pie yet. The indefinite article only appears with singular nouns. Consider the following examples of indefinite articles used in context:

Please hand me a book; any book will do.

Please hand me an autobiography; any autobiography will do.

Exceptions: Choosing A or An

There are a few exceptions to the general rule of using a before words that start with consonants and an before words that begin with vowels.

The first letter of the word honor, for example, is a consonant, but it’s unpronounced. In spite of its spelling, the word honor begins with a vowel sound. Therefore, we use an.

Consider the example sentence below for an illustration of this concept.

My mother is a honest woman.

My mother is an honest woman.

  • Similarly, when the first letter of a word is a vowel but is pronounced with a consonant sound, use a, as in the sample sentence below:

She is an United States senator.

She is a United States senator.

This holds true with acronyms and initialisms, too: an LCD display, a UK-based company, an HR department, a URL.

Article Before an Adjective

When to Use A or An

'A,' 'an,' and 'the' make up a special class of English words known as articles. These three words are used in front of a noun (person, place, or thing) to indicate the type of reference being made to that noun.

The articles are especially tricky for writers, readers, and speakers whose first language is not English, since many languages around the world do not even have articles. But once you know a couple of simple rules, it is easy to know how to use them.

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Definite and Indefinite Articles

The first thing to know when deciding to use 'a' or 'an' is the difference between a definite articles and indefinite article. 'The' is a definite article, used to refer to a specific person place, or thing:

  • The house on the right is mine.
  • That is the guy who robbed me.

'A' and 'an,' on the other hand, are indefinite articles. They are both used to describe one of many people, places, or things:

  • I went to a great party last night.
  • My dog is an Irish setter.
  • I bought a cheeseburger at In N Out.
  • Dr. Jones is an esteemed scientist at Yale University.

In all of these sentences, 'a' or 'an' is used to refer to one of many possible parties, Irish setters, cheeseburgers, and scientists. So, this is the first thing to decide. Are you referring to a specific noun or one of many nouns. If it is one of many, you need to use 'a' or 'an.' But which one? Let's find out.

First Letter

The difference between 'a' and 'an' is determined entirely by the first letter of the word that immediately follows it. If the word immediately following starts with a vowel (the letters a, e, i, o, u), use 'an.' If it starts with a consonant, use 'a.'

The word immediately following it is usually either the noun or an adjective (describing word) that is describing the noun. Let's take a closer look at our examples from the previous section that used 'a:'

  • I bought a cheeseburger at In N Out.

In this sentence, the word right after the article is the noun 'cheeseburger.' 'C' is a consonant, so we used 'a.'

  • I went to a great party last night.

In this example, the word after the article is an adjective, 'great.' But it also starts with a consonant, so we still use 'a.'

Now let's look at the sentences that use 'an.'

  • My dog is an Irish setter.

'Irish setter' is the name for a breed of dog, so it's a noun. And it starts with a vowel, 'I,' so we use 'an' before it.

  • Dr. Jones is an esteemed scientist at Yale University.

In this case, the adjective 'esteemed' comes after the article, but it starts with an 'e,' so we still use 'an.'

The 'H' Exception

One thing that often trips people up on using 'a' and 'an' is words that start with 'h.

' In several words that start with 'h,' such as 'honest,' 'herb,' and 'honor,' the 'h' is not pronounced, so the first sound you hear when saying the word is the vowel.

For these words, it is generally accepted to use 'an' instead of 'a,' even though the first letter is technically a consonant:

Indefinite Articles – “A” or “An” before “H”? Blame the confusion on the French

It’s easy to remember what indefinite article to use before most words:

  • Use “a” before words that begin with a consonant as in “a banana,” “a xylophone,” or “a red convertible.”
  • Use “an” before words that begin with a vowel as in “an apple,” “an editor,” or “an eager beaver.”

However, words that start with the letter “H” do not follow the rule for consonants. For the letter “H”, the pronunciation dictates the indefinite article:

  • Use “a” before words where you pronounce the letter “H” such as “a hat,” “a house” or “a happy cat.”
  • Use “an” before words where you don’t pronounce the letter “H” such as “an herb,” “an hour,” or “an honorable man.”

Are the French to blame for breaking the rule of indefinite articles?

The first Englishmen on the British Isles first spoke Old English or Anglo-Saxon. This is a Germanic language where the “H” is pronounced at the beginning of such words as “house” and “helpful.” These words use the indefinite article “a.”

Circa 1066 AD, the Normans crossed the English Channel from France to take over England. Along with more sophisticated stone architecture and organized armies, the Normans merged French words into English. In French, the letter “H” is not pronounced at the beginning of words such as “herb,” “honorable,” and “hour.” These and other such words use the indefinite article “an.

Rushang Shah

Gramlee is a proofreading and copyediting service that employs professional editors. We edit with your audience's amygdala in mind. If you don't know what that means, we invite you to visit www.gramlee.com, scroll to the bottom, and read the small paragraph on Readability. We promise it's a worthwhile read that may even change your outlook on writing.

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