How to use Articles – part I

a-an-the

What is an article? Basically, an article is an adjective. Like adjectives, articles modify nouns. English has two articles: the and a/an. The is used to refer to specific or particular nouns; a/an is used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. We call the the definite article and a/an the indefinite article.

the = definite article

a/an = indefinite article

For example, if I say, “Let’s read the book,” I mean a specific book. If I say, “Let’s read a book,” I mean any book rather than a specific book. Here’s another way to explain it: The is used to refer to a specific or particular member of a group. For example, “I just saw the most popular movie of the year.” There are many movies, but only one particular movie is the most popular. Therefore, we use the.

“A/an” is used to refer to a non-specific or non-particular member of the group. For example, “I would like to go see a movie.” Here, we’re not talking about a specific movie. We’re talking about any movie. There are many movies, and I want to see any movie. I don’t have a specific one in mind.

Let’s look at each kind of article a little more closely.

Indefinite Articles: a and an

“A” and “an” signal that the noun modified is indefinite, referring to any member of a group. For example:

“My daughter really wants a dog for Christmas.” This refers to any dog. We don’t know which dog because we haven’t found the dog yet.
“Somebody call a policeman!” This refers to any policeman. We don’t need a specific policeman; we need any policeman who is available.
“When I was at the zoo, I saw an elephant!” Here, we’re talking about a single, non-specific thing, in this case an elephant. There are probably several elephants at the zoo, but there’s only one we’re talking about here.

Remember, using a or an depends on the sound that begins the next word. So…

  • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant: a boy; a car; a bike; a zoo; a dog
  • an + singular noun beginning with a vowel: an elephant; an egg; an apple; an idiot; anorphan
  • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant sound: a user (sounds like ‘yoo-zer,’ i.e. begins with a consonant ‘y’ sound, so ‘a’ is used); a universitya unicycle
  • an + nouns starting with silent “h”: an hour
  • a + nouns starting with a pronounced “h”: a horse
    • In some cases where “h” is pronounced, such as “historical,” you can use an. However, a is more commonly used and preferred.
      A historical event is worth recording.

Remember that these rules also apply when you use acronyms:

Introductory Composition at Purdue (ICaP) handles first-year writing at the University. Therefore, an ICaP memo generally discusses issues concerning English 106 instructors. Another case where this rule applies is when acronyms start with consonant letters but have vowel sounds:
An MSDS (material safety data sheet) was used to record the data. An SPCC plan (Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasures plan) will help us prepare for the worst.

If the noun is modified by an adjective, the choice between a and an depends on the initial sound of the adjective that immediately follows the article:

  • a broken egg
  • an unusual problem
  • a European country (sounds like ‘yer-o-pi-an,’ i.e. begins with consonant ‘y’ sound)

Remember, too, that in English, the indefinite articles are used to indicate membership in a group:

  • I am a teacher. (I am a member of a large group known as teachers.)
  • Brian is an Irishman. (Brian is a member of the people known as Irish.)
  • Seiko is a practicing Buddhist. (Seiko is a member of the group of people known as Buddhists.)

Via: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/540/01/

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