All About Articles: A, An, and The

These three little words might cause more trouble for English learners than any others. The articles “a”, “an”, and “the” have specific rules of use depending on the word or phrase they modify. With a little explanation, however, you will be able to easily understand which one should be used when.

Definite vs. Indefinite Articles

“The” is considered a definite article, which means it refers to something specific. If I talk about “the car”, then you know I mean one particular car that belongs to someone I know. On the other hand, “a” and “an” are indefinite articles, which means they refer to something in general. If I mention “a car”, then it is implied that it was just some car passing by or some otherwise unknown vehicle. If I say, “I want to buy a car,” for example, the indefinite article “a” is used because I don’t yet know which car I will get — it’s not specific. Also, “the” can be used with singular or plural nouns, but “a” and “an” should only be used with singular nouns.

Differentiating Between “a” and “an”

Furthermore, whether “a” or “an” is used depends on the beginning sound of the word or phrase modified. If the word begins with a consonant or a letter that makes a consonant sound (like “university”, which begins with a “yoo” sound) then “a” should be used.

For example, you might write “a book”, “a cup”, or “a European trip”. From these instances, you can see that the article choice depends on whether the initial letter sounds like a consonant (rather than whether it really is one) and that if an adjective comes before the noun, then the article matches the adjective (the very next word).

However, if the beginning sound of the modified word or phrase is a vowel, then “an” is used. For example, you might write “an owl”, “an adventure”, or “an umbrella”.

Be careful of words that begin with “h”, for “a” is used if the “h” makes a hard (voiced) sound (e.g. “a hare” or “a handshake”) while “an” is used if it makes a soft (unvoiced) sound (e.g. “an hour” or “an honest fellow”).

These same rules based on whether the noun has an initial consonant or vowel sound also apply to acronyms. So, if you have an instance like the Korean Fair Trade Commission (KFTC), you would write “a KFTC order”, since the first sound is that of a consonant. In contrast, if you were writing about the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), then you would write “an MPAA rating” given that the first sound is that of a vowel, “em”.

However, notice that both of these organizations are specific entities, so (as above) you would write “the KFTC” or “the MPAA” if the noun modified was the organization itself. Articles “a” or “an” are used only if the noun modified is a general subject (like an unspecific order or rating, as in the examples) and the acronym then acts as an adjective before this unspecific noun.

Does this seem like more than “a little” explanation? Well, let’s sum up to make it more clear:

• Use “a” when the singular noun or noun phrase:
 - begins with a consonant letter (book, cup, etc.)
 - begins with a consonant sound (university, user, etc.)
 - begins with a hard (voiced) “h” sound (hare, handshake, etc.)
 - is an acronym beginning with a consonant sound (KFTC)

• Use “an” when the singular noun or noun phrase:
 - begins with a vowel letter (owl, adventure, etc.)
 - begins with a soft (unvoiced) “h” sound (hour, honest, etc.)
 - is an acronym beginning with a vowel sound (MPAA)

What about “the”?

Since there is only one definite article, there are a few less rules for “the”. You should use it when you are speaking about a specific noun, but that noun can be either singular or plural (unlike with “a” and “an” which only work with singular forms). “The” can also be used with noncount nouns, for which the plural form is the same as the singular. This will be explained in more detail in the next article, but for now know that “the” works with noncount nouns while “a” and “an” only work with count nouns. For example, you might write, “there is music in the air”, since “air” is a noncount noun.

• Use “the” when the singular or plural noun or noun phrase:
 - is a specific subject
 - is a noncount noun

Let’s practice!

Fill in the blank with the appropriate article, (a) a, (b) an, or (c) the. Check your answers at the end!

  1. Tell your brother to go let ___ cat out.
  2. The other day I saw ___ beautiful sunset.
  3. Can you check to see if this movie has ___ MPAA rating yet?
  4. ___ good friend is a precious thing.
  5. They are planning to buy ___ house next year.

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(Answers: 1.c 2.a 3.b 4.a 5.a)

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