Getting Articles Straight: A, An, or The?
Some student writers just have a hard time knowing which article to choose. I marked a paper recently with the sentence below:
This is the first sentence in the paper, so the author is not talking about any particular person that he has previously mentioned. Clearly, this demands an a, not a the.
In many ways, articles are the easiest category of words to deal with. Unlike nouns, verbs, adjectives, and others, there is a finite number of articles. In fact, there are only three! They are the tiny, ubiquitous words a, an, and the. Most American grammar texts* consider the articles a sub-group of adjectives. They, in a sense, modify the forthcoming noun.
Definite and Indefinite Articles
Although there are three articles, they can be divided into two groups. The is the definite article and a and an are what we call the indefinite articles. In fact, a and an function identically and can be considered two forms of the same word.
Simply, the definite article, the, is used to refer to a specific or particular noun, while the indefinite articles refer to non-specific or non-particular nouns.
That’s why there’s a difference between saying,
Let’s go to the bowling alley.
Let’s go to a bowling alley.
In the first sentence, either there’s only one bowling alley around, or it’s clear which particular bowling alley the speaker refers to. In the second, any bowling alley will do.
And that’s why the student erred by using the definite article instead of the indefinite in his paper.
A or An?
There is a common misunderstanding about when to use a and when to use an. I have often heard people say that an should precede words that begin with vowels and a is used before words that begin with consonants.
That’s almost right.
What you must keep in mind is that the letter isn’t as important as the sound of the letter. An should be used only when the next word begins with a vowel sound. Remember that some words that start with the consonant h begin with a vowel sound (honor, hour) and some words that begin with the vowel u start with a hard y sound (unicycle, universe).
- incorrect: I’ve waited for more than a hour.
- correct: I’ve waited for more than an hour.
- incorrect: That poodle is riding an unicycle.
- correct: That poodle is riding a unicycle.
Beyond these simple rules, articles can be quite bewildering. English learners often struggle to know when an article is necessary and when it’s not. Why exactly do we say:
- I have the measles.
- I have a cold.
- I have laryngitis.
How weird would it sound to say I have a measles, I have cold, or I have the laryngitis? Really weird. Ever think about why?
There are actually complex rules that govern these kinds of expressions, but it’s easiest to say they are simply idioms (you know — just the way you say it). Fortunately, native speakers of English tend to pick up these idioms unconsciously. Still, explaining why one is correct and another is not can be difficult.
*A few grammar approaches include articles in a part of speech they call determiners, which modify nouns, but do not express attributes like adjectives. But let’s overlook that approach for our purposes.
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Cool! I actually know why “the” and “a” are used. “A cold” is because there are many viruses and germs that cause the common cold, which means the symptomseven vary by type. “The measles” is because there is only one variation to catch. Laryngitis? No clue yet.