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When to Use ‘A’ or ‘An’ (What’s an Article?)

When to use a/an is determined by sound. Use 'a' when the noun starts with a consonant. Use 'an' when the noun begins with a vowel sound.



When to use “a” or “an”?

A‘ or ‘an‘ are some of the smallest words in the English language, but nevertheless these words have an important role and function in our vocabulary and communication. Let’s dive deeper and get a little more textual (instructive, educational, etc., etc.)

What are ‘a’ and ‘an’ in grammar?

A‘, ‘an‘, and ‘the‘ are called articles in English grammar. There are two main types of articles: 1. A/an and 2. The.

A/an are indefinite articles, since they do not specify or define the exact thing being referenced.

The is definite: sentences that use the point specifically to what’s being mentioned.

Articles (the/a/an) come before nouns, and they allow us to clarify whether a subject is specific or general. Read the sentences comparing definite vs. indefinite articles:

1. She goes to a school in the neighbourhood. (indefinite)

2. She goes to the school in the neighbourhood. (definite)

3. Let’s go to a park. (indefinite)

4. Let’s go to the park. (definite)

Sentences with the refer to a specific thing in the world: the park; the school; the hospital. Use ”the” when the context makes it clear what exactly is being mentioned, or to describe one particular person or thing.  From sentence 1, we know he saw a doctor, but we do not know which doctor it was that he saw. The second sentence tells us he saw the doctor. See sentences 5-6: ‘Let’s go to a park’ leaves open which park (specifically) it is referenced. Conversely, with the 6th sentence, ‘let’s go to the park’ is specific, and points out (or defines) which park in particular is spoken about (or it may be obvious in the larger context).

When to use ‘a‘ vs ‘an

We determine whether to use the articles ”a” or ”an” based on sound. When a word begins with a vowel sound, use the article ‘an‘:

1. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

2. I saw an elephant at the zoo yesterday.

3. She wore an elegant dress to the party.

4. There is an excellent restaurant down the street.

5. He is an exceptional athlete with great skills.

When words start with a consonant, we use ‘a‘:

1. A cat was sitting on the windowsill, basking in the sunlight.

2. She grabbed a book from the shelf and settled into the armchair.

3. The student submitted a paper that was well-written and researched.

4. He ordered a pizza with extra cheese and pepperoni.

5. We went for a walk in the park and saw a squirrel in a tree.

When to use a/an vs the?

The choice between “a” and “the” depends on the context of the sentence and the noun being referred to. Generally, “a” is used before a singular countable noun that is not specific or previously mentioned in the conversation. For example:

1. I need to buy a new phone.

2. She adopted a kitten from the shelter.

3. We use ‘the‘ before a specific noun that’s either already been mentioned in the conversation, or is known to the listener/reader:

4. Have you seen the phone I was using yesterday?

5. The Eiffel Tower is a famous tourist attraction in Paris.

Think of it this way: the definite article (the) defines the noun specifically. Indefinite articles (a/an) are indefinite, and refer generally to the category of noun that’s mentioned.

Keep on learning! It’s encouraged.



Sources  

P.C. Wren’s High School English and Grammar Composition

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