What the heck are indefinite articles, and how do we use them correctly?

This week we discuss the correct use of “a” and “an.”  These words are indefinite articles that are used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns—as opposed to the definite article “the,” which modifies specific or particular nouns (e.g., the lawsuit versus a lawsuit, the movie versus a movie, the car versus a car).  

The indefinite article “a” is used before nouns that begin with a consonant sound, including nouns with a pronounced “h” or a long “u” sound, or nouns such as “one” or “Ouija.”  For example:

  • a baseball game
  • a coach
  • a yellow bird
  • a hotel
  • a union
  • a Ouija board

The indefinite article “an” is used before nouns beginning with a vowel, vowel sound, or an unsounded “h.”  For example:

  • an attorney
  • an engine
  • an igloo
  • an onion
  • an umpire
  • an honor

As you can see, determining whether to use “a” or “an” basically comes down to this:  what sound does the noun begin with?  If the first sound you make is a vowel sound, use “an.”  If it’s a consonant sound, use “a.” 

Finally, when using an abbreviation, the indefinite article that precedes it depends on how the abbreviation reads.  If the abbreviation is read as a word, it is an acronym and you should follow the above rule.  For example:

  • a NATO member (since NATO begins with a consonant sound)
  • an OPEC oil minister (since OPEC begins with a vowel sound)

If the abbreviation is read as a series of letters, it is an initialism and again, you should follow the above rule.  For example:

  • an SEC team (since the first letter has a vowel sound)
  • a DOJ attorney (since the first letter has a consonant sound)

That is all for now …

2 Comments

Filed under Grammar

2 responses to “What the heck are indefinite articles, and how do we use them correctly?

  1. Mike Ratoza

    I believe that this rule has its genesis in human tongue biophysics. That is, the human tongue can twist and turn only so much. This is particularly true of English speaking tongues. An English trained tongue has an easier time of it when stating “a nooky” than when stating “an nooky.” It is too hard to make a double tongue clutch that is required to pronounce properly the first n sound followed by another n sound, etc. Without slurring, that is. And correct pronunciation does not permit slurring. Ergo, the a and an rules that you ably described. The h exception proves this biophysics theory since h is usually silent anyway.

    ~ Michael M. Ratoza

  2. Mike Ratoza

    In further support of this blog post, Charles Dickens emphasized the tongue twisting limits of the English tongue very aptly in the opening paragraph of Great Expectations; that is —

    “MY father’s family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”

    ’nuff said.

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