What is an article?
Articles identify whether a noun is definite (specific or particular) or indefinite (general or unspecific). For this reason, articles are divided into two categories: the definite article, the, and the indefinite articles, a and an.
The definite article the is used to identify a specific person, place, or thing. For instance:
- “I’m looking forward to the game.” (There is a specific game that the speaker is looking forward to.)
- “Would you pass me the phone?” (There is a specific phone that the speaker is asking for.)
- “She turned on the lamp next to her bed.” (There is a specific lamp next to her bed that she turned on.)
- “He’s going to the play later.” (There is a specific play that he is going to see.)
We can also use the to refer to specific plural nouns, as in:
- “The dogs next door keep me awake with their barking.”
- “She’s looking for the papers she printed last night.”
- “I see that the students have already arrived.”
A and an, on the other hand, are used to identify a person or thing that is unspecific or generic—the speaker is not referring to someone or something in particular, or the person or thing may not be specifically known to the speaker. Unlike the, a/an can only be used before singular nouns. For instance:
- “I’m looking for a pen.” (There is not a specific pen that the speaker is looking for.)
- “Would you please turn on a light?” (There is not a specific light the speaker is asking to be turned on.)
- “There is an angry student waiting to speak with you.” (Although there is a particular student, he or she is unknown to the speaker.)
- “I’m waiting for an answer.” (There is not one specific answer the speaker is waiting for.)
Other parts of speech
Articles always modify nouns. For this reason, they are often considered a sub-class of determiners. However, an article can also precede a noun phrase, even if it begins with an adjective or an adverb. For example:
- “That was an exciting night.” (noun phrase beginning with an adjective)
- “The truly remarkable thing is how long the deal took to happen.” (noun phrase beginning with an adverb)
Articles can’t precede verbs, however, as verbs are not used to create noun phrases.
Vowel Sounds vs. Consonant Sounds
We use the indefinite article a when it precedes a word beginning with a consonant sound, and we use an when the article precedes a word beginning with a vowel sound. Note that this rule applies to the sound of the noun, rather than the specific spelling. For example:
- “What an unusual discovery!” (Correct—the word begins with the vowel “u,” and it makes the vowel sound “uh.”)
- “What a unusual discovery!” (incorrect)
- “What a unique discovery!” (Correct—the word begins with the vowel “u,” but it makes the consonant sound “yu.”)
- “What an unique discovery!” (incorrect)
- “It is an honor to meet you.” (Correct—the word begins with the consonant “h,” but it makes the vowel sound “ah.”)
- “It is a honor to meet you.” (incorrect)
- “There was a heap of food left over.” (Correct—the word begins with the consonant “h,” and it makes the consonant sound “he.”)
- “There was an heap of food left over.” (incorrect)
Here are a few other examples where a word’s spelling goes against its pronunciation:
- an hour — makes the vowel sound “ow”
- an honest man — makes the vowel sound “awh”
- a university — makes the consonant sound “yu”
- a European citizen — makes the consonant sound “yu”
- a once-in-a-life-time chance — makes the consonant sound “wuh”
Herbs and History
One area of difficulty comes from dialectical differences between different speakers of English.
For example, the word herb is pronounced as “erb” (IPA: ɜːrb) in American English, with a silent “h,” so we would say “an herb.” However, in British English, herb is pronounced with a hard consonant “h” as “herb” (IPA: hɜːb), so “a herb” would be correct.
Similarly, some people pronounce the word “historic” and “historically” with a silent “h” in certain contexts. It is not unusual to read or hear “an historic moment” or “an historically important event,” for instance. Uniquely, the “h” is never silent if these words are preceded by anything other than an indefinite article, as in “the moment is historic” or “the historically significant moment.”
Some writers and grammarians believe it is never correct to pronounce historic or historically with a silent “h,” though, insisting that it can only take the indefinite article a, rather than an. In more formal or professional writing, it is advisable to follow this more strict guideline and always use the indefinite article a.
There are plenty of other oddities regarding spelling and pronunciation in the English language. To learn more about the various conventions, exceptions, and irregularities, see the guide on English Spelling and Pronunciation.
Identifying a profession
In addition to identifying an unspecific noun, we also use the indefinite article a/an to talk or inquire about someone’s profession.
- “Are you a teacher?” (correct)
- “Are you teacher?” (incorrect)
- “John is an engineer.” (correct)
- “John is engineer.” (incorrect)
We only use the definite article the if we are referring to a particular person in that profession. For instance:
- “Are you a doctor?” (Unspecific—inquires about the person’s profession in general.)
- “Are you the doctor?” (Specific—inquires if this person is a particular doctor that the speaker was waiting or looking for.)
- “Mary is a technician for the gas company.” (Unspecific—Mary’s general profession is as a technician for the specific gas company.)
- “Mary is the technician for the gas company.” (Specific—Mary is either the sole technician for the gas company, or else she is a specific technician the speaker is referencing.)
In addition to plural nouns, the indefinite article a/an cannot be used with uncountable nouns (also known as mass nouns or non-count nouns). These are nouns that cannot be divided or counted as individual elements or separate parts. They can be tangible objects (such as substances or collective categories of things), or intangible or abstract things such as concepts or ideas.
- “Would you like tea?” (correct)
- “Would you like a tea?” (incorrect)
- “Do you have (some/any) information?” (correct)
- “Do you have an information?” (incorrect)
(We often use the words some or any to indicate an unspecified quantity of uncountable nouns.)
Uncountable nouns can sometimes take the definite article the, as in:
- “Have you heard the news?”
- “The furniture in my living room is old.”
However, this is only the case if a specific uncountable noun is being described. For example:
- “I am looking for accommodation.” (correct)
- “I am looking for the accommodation listed in this advertisement.” (correct—references specific accommodation)
- “I am looking for an accommodation.” (incorrect)
- “I am looking for the accommodation.” (incorrect)