Are you Using 'A' or 'An' Correctly?

Peter B. GiblettStarred Page By Peter B. Giblett, 24th Feb 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Tips

One of the painful parts about moderating submissions on Wikinut is the inability to fix, or put a red squiggly line under, the errors that people make, yet there are occasions when there are too many basic errors in a single article, which drives the need to write content about better English usage, which leads to an investigation of the proper use of the indefinite article.

General Usage of "A" or "An"

There are two indefinite articles in English: 'a' and 'an' and each is used slightly differently yet people frequently make errors when using them, they relate closely to nouns (or more correctly the indefinite article precedes them) and this is usually where things get very technical but remember normally 'a' is used before a noun with a consonant sound and 'an' is used before a vowel sound, yet as with everything in the English language there are exceptions to this rule for example we use "a union" and "an umbrella" not "an union" or "a umbrella".

There is a further area of difficulty, when the following word starts with the letter "h", words like "hour" or "honour" where it is correct to say "an hour" or "an honour" (because the "h" is silent, or very nearly, in these cases) but you would not say "an hospital", which is peculiar because for a Londoner (born within the sound of Bow Bells), like my father, who along with using rhyming slang would have pronounced the word without the letter "h" so saying "a 'ospital" would certainly sound incorrect.

Some examples:

  • A girl
  • A car
  • A boat
  • An apple
  • An elephant
  • A big elephant
  • An insolent girl
  • An American
  • A European

One of a Group

The indefinite article is used to show that the noun is one of a group of things, for example "take an apple from the bowl" or "bring be a book from the library" we can assume there are a group of items to select from.

Please do not use an indefinite article with plural or "uncount" nouns:

  • Plural: e.g. the library has an extensive collection of books
  • Uncount: e.g. the wig portrayed her as having long flowing brown hair

When referring to a plural item such as the apples in the bowl or the books in the library then once we select one item then it is normally subsequently referred to by the use of the definite article, the. I may say "give me an apple", but once I have it in my possession I must speak of it as in "the apple is shiny and has a healthy red and green colour", because the description applies to the single item, it may also apply to the whole group of apples, but the focus has now shifted to one specific apple.

We can also use this when we talk of a person being one of a group, for example "my cousin is a lawyer" - he has passed the bar and may practice law and we may be proud of him, but of course he is only one of many having the same professional status.

When Used for the First Time

The indefinite article is used when we are referring to an object for the first time, such as:

  • "Buy me a drink"
  • "I need a computer"
  • "find me a pen"
  • "pass me an apple"
  • "See if you can get me a ticket"

It should be noted that this usage normally relates to speech and when you subsequently refer to the object it must be through the definite article, as in:

  • "The drink hit the right spot"
  • "You saved my life by allowing me to use the computer"
  • "The pen was useless" {although it may be better said as "That pen is useless", but this is applying a different language rule}
  • "The show was great"

Creating Generalisations

In English we may use either "a" or "an" combined with a singular noun in order to make a statement about all things of that type, such as "a cow likes to chew grass" which can be used to imply that all cows like this. Some other examples of this we may see in everyday use:

  • A dog likes its walk
  • A cat likes to sleep

Yet you should note that there are similar implications via the definite article:

  • The bus is always late {meaning all buses run late}
  • The politician always lies

Nouns

The use of either the definite or indefinite article relates purely to nouns, which are words that function as the name for a specific thing or group of things. When used in their singular form nouns MUST ALWAYS be preceded by "a", "an", or "the" and when nouns are pluralised the definite/indefinite article is not used.

The key here is than many writers have become sloppy with how they use the humble, but important "a" or "an" and do need a reminded to take care every once in a while.

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  • A dog - Image by Green Street
  • Exclamation by Peter Giblett

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Tags

Basic Error, Definite Article, Exception, Group Of Items, Indefinite Article, Language Rule, One Of A Group, Plural Noun, Proper Use, Rule, Silent H, Single Item, Uncount Noun

Meet the author

author avatar Peter B. Giblett
Author of "Is your Business Ready? For the Social Media Revolution"

Social media consultant, with C-Level background.

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Comments

author avatar Sherri Granato
24th Feb 2015 (#)

Insightful piece. Thanks for sharing. Thank goodness for those squiggly red marks!

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author avatar Retired
24th Feb 2015 (#)

I tend to use "an" with "hotel" and "historic" - it's an old-fashioned British usage, but it always sounds right to me!

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
24th Feb 2015 (#)

John I believe that "an" is appropriate with all "h" words where the first letter is normally/mostly silent. I don't believe it to be old fashioned at all.

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author avatar Retired
24th Feb 2015 (#)

But I would also pronounce the H in these particular words!

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
24th Feb 2015 (#)

So do I.

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author avatar Nancy Czerwinski
24th Feb 2015 (#)

Peter, thank you so much for sharing this article. I always learn from you and I appreciate the time you put into these articles. Blessings!

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author avatar Kingwell
24th Feb 2015 (#)

Great tips for all of us. I've always said 'an onion' but also 'an umbrella' now I discover that it's 'a onion'. As you continue writing I'll keep learning. Blessings.

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author avatar Retired
24th Feb 2015 (#)

Kingwell, Why would it be "a onion"? I see nothing in this article that would lead you to that conclusion.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
24th Feb 2015 (#)

It is "an onion"

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author avatar Retired
24th Feb 2015 (#)

Maybe Kingwell is confusing union with onion?

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
25th Feb 2015 (#)

maybe.

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author avatar Harris Mungai
25th Feb 2015 (#)

Very educational piece here.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
25th Feb 2015 (#)

Glad to help

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author avatar M G Singh
25th Feb 2015 (#)

Good lesson in language construction

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
25th Feb 2015 (#)

Thank you Madan Sir.

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author avatar Carol Roach
25th Feb 2015 (#)

very good another tricky one is when to use bear and bare,

is it bear our soul or bare our soul, the answer is the former

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author avatar Retired
25th Feb 2015 (#)

Carol, Surely you mean the latter? To lay bare is to expose to examination, which is what is meant by baring your soul.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
25th Feb 2015 (#)

Carol, I agree with John here - Indeed I have in the past covered this very subject.

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author avatar spirited
26th Feb 2015 (#)

◾Plural: e.g. the library has an extensive collection of books

so this is wrong, and it should be:

◾Plural: e.g. the library has a extensive collection of books

Thanks Peter. These types of articles are hard to write. You have written a fine instructional piece here.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
26th Feb 2015 (#)

Grrrr...hhhhhh....

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
26th Feb 2015 (#)

At no point did I say that nouns starting with vowels are preceded by an "a", I was merely pointing out some exceptions!

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author avatar spirited
26th Feb 2015 (#)

I am not sure if you understood my question.

I was not making a statement, I was checking with you or asking you to confirm which of these two examples is correct.


"Please do not use an indefinite article with plural or "uncount" nouns:"

I am still a bit lost here as to what this means.

Were you using an example of what not to do, or of what to do. That's what I was trying to ask. Sorry for the confusion. I can see now it might come across as if I was correcting you.

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author avatar Retired
26th Feb 2015 (#)

I have to agree with Spirited that this section is not crystal clear. For one thing, I have never heard the term "uncount noun" before.

I would have thought that the simplest approach to definite and indefinite articles would be to take the terms at face value - are you being definite about "the" item in question or are you merely referring to "an" example out of many possible ones?

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
26th Feb 2015 (#)

John I know there was always a slightly different rule for "hair". In most instances we refer to it in the "full head" sense, I had never encountered the use of "uncount noun" until I wrote an article about a year ago for another site about this subject.

The "an" in relation to the collection of books related to "extensive", not to "books".

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author avatar Retired
26th Feb 2015 (#)

Peter, Surely the reason for the indefinite article in your example is "collection" rather than "books".

I can see where confusions are arising here, which is that you are making two distinct points within the same article - namely when to use the "a" or "an" form of the indefinite article, and also when to use the definite or indefinite article.

This was not made clear in the title of the article, which only refers to the first point, but in fact the bulk of the article deals with the second point. A better title might have been "Are you using "A", "An" and "The" correctly?"

If I was marking this as a school essay you might have got a quantity of red ink from me!

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
26th Feb 2015 (#)

Actually John, the point of this article was to ensure correct use of the indefinite article and in particular point out that nouns require them of definite article whenever they are used. The problem here is many writers on Wikinut DO NOT use the indefinite article in association with noun use.

Oh yes excuse my "D'oh" moment the noun was collection not extensive which resulted in the use of 'an'.

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