Indefinite articles in English (a and an)
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The article a/an
It is used when the thing or person we are talking about is not specific (it is “indefinite”):
- I met a friend in New York.
- I work in a school.
a/year exists only in the singular, and only before a name that can be counted.
- There is a book on the chair (singular)
- There are books on the chair (plural)
- There are a books on the chair ❌
- There is water on the floor (we can’t count water… so we put nothing here!)
We use a/an to talk about someone’s job:
- He is a doctor (we don’t say ‘he is doctor’)
We put a before a consonant (b, c, d, f, g, p, m, etc…):
- a bear
- a teacher
- a table
- a dog
- a pilot
We put an in front of a vowel (a, e, i, o, u):
- an apple
- an invitation
- an elephant
- an actor
- an umbrella
But in fact, it’s not that simple….
It is the sound of the first letter of a word that determines whether we use a or an: if the word begins with a vowel sound, we use AN. If the word begins with a consonant sound, A is used.
Indeed, they say:
- a university
- a unicorn
- a euro
- a european
- a user
⚠ Even if hour, honor and x-ray start with consonants, we use “an” because they pronounce themselves as if they started with a vowel:
- an hour
- an honor
- an x-ray
This is also why we use an when we talk about the letter F or the number 1 or 8:
- Your name is Francis, with an F? (NOT ‘with a F?‘)
- He is an FBI agent (NOT ‘he is a FBI agent’)
- I can’t see, is it a one or a seven?
It is not really a question of whether the word begins with a vowel or not, but with a vowel sound.
- Buy a house in an hour = house and hour start with the same letters but pronounce differently!
- An unknown woman saw a unicorn = same thing, unknown and unicorn start with the same letters but pronounce themselves differently. Either A or AN is used depending on the sound!
Remember that it is the sound that is important!
⚠ Herb & Hospital: it depends!
Do we say a hospital or an hospital? The letter H of these two words is pronounced or not depending on whether you have an American or British accent. In American, the H is silent, so it looks more like an herb, a hospital…
Defined (the) or indefinite (a, an) article?
Finally, look at the following example to understand the difference:
- Pass me a cup (any one)
- Pass me the cup (a precise cup)
- I need a pen (any one)
- I need the pen (a specific pen)