August 2, 2020

Indefinite Articles in English

Leaning how to use indefinite articles in English is an important part of mastering the English language. Using them correctly will help you sound more like a native speaker in both your written and verbal communication. And these can sometimes be a little tricky to learn depending on your native language.

While not all languages have both a definite and indefinite article, there are those that have various types of these articles. And this can cause confusion especially for those languages that just do not have them.

But with a little practice you will have this part of English quickly mastered. And once you do you will be able to better express yourself using different grammar structures in English.

Now, as mentioned some languages like use different indefinite articles depending on the gender of the noun it is associated with. However, in English most nouns are gender neutral so this concern does not exist.

So hopefully I have gotten you interest and you want to learn more about how to correctly use indefinite articles in English. If so, continue reading and you will learn what the two indefinite articles are in English and how to use them.  And, you will even have the chance to practice what you learn in this article at the end!

What is an indefinite article in English?

Well to put it simply, it is a determiner or word used to introduce a noun or phrase. But it also lets you know that what the speaker is talking about is non-specific. If what they are referring to is specific then they would use a definite article. But we are not talking about those in this less. However, if you’re interested you can learn more about those in the lesson “How to use definite articles

This brings us to our next question. What are the indefinite articles in English? Well they are ‘a’ and ‘an’. Both are used as another way of saying ‘one’. I can already hear your question: “If they both just mean ‘one’ why not just use one, for example one apple?.

Don’t worry.  That will be explained shortly.

When to use ‘a’ and ‘an’ in English

Well there are just a few rules with using indefinite articles correctly in English. The first is that they normally accompany a noun in a sentence. Yes, I said normally. Because there are times that they will accompany a verb. But the rules are mostly the same for how to use them with a verb as with a noun.

When they accompany a noun the noun is countable, not uncountable. If you need to review the difference between these types of nouns check out our lesson on “The types of nouns in English”.

How to use indefinite articles in English

Now that you know that you use ‘a’ and ‘an’ with single countable (not uncountable) nouns to let people know you are talking about a non-specific noun we have to discuss how to use them correctly.

This can sometimes also sometimes be confusing depending on your native language. Those whose native language uses indefinite articles but with greater or lesser frequency then the English language does have particular problems with using them correctly.

They are not used with every noun and are easy to overuse. Unfortunately, it would be impossible to go over every situation and rule for when to use them. But a lot of that will be learned as you talk and interact with native English speakers.

The main thing for you to understand is how to choose which one to use. So rule 2 is that depending on the noun (or sometimes verb) they are accompanying determines which one to use.

If the noun begins with a ‘consonant’ sound, you will use ‘a’. And, yes you guessed it, if it begins with a ‘vowel’ sound you will use ‘an’. Pretty simple huh?

Well, no. I’m sorry. But it’s important to understand it is the sound and not the actual letter. But don’t worry, we will go into that more later.

When to use ‘a’.

As mentioned, ‘a’ is used with nouns that begin with a ‘consonant’ sound. Unfortunately, in English the pronunciation of some letters change depending on the words they are in. But here are some example words that begin with a ‘consonant’ and use the indefinite article ‘a’.

A cat

A bottle

A pen

A man

And here are some example sentences also:

A cat lives in his apartment.

A bottle broke when he dropped it.

She prefers to use a pen and not a pencil.

A man bought them lunch yesterday.

When to use ‘an’

‘An’ has the same rules as ‘a’ and is based on how the word they are accompanying is pronounced. As quick reminder ‘an’ proceeds words that begin with a ‘vowel’ sound. Here are some example words that use the indefinite article ‘an’ in English”

An apple

An umbrella

An envelope

An inch

And here are some sentence examples:

She ate an apple for breakfast.

They forgot to bring an umbrella.

I need an envelope to send this letter.

He missed the goal by an inch.

Hopefully now that you’ve seen some examples of both it is a little clearer. But, unfortunately, English is not so much a language of rules as it is a language of exceptions!

First exception to ‘a’ and ‘an’

I previously mentioned that both of these are used with nouns and verbs. However, you should also understand that sometimes the noun is modified by an adjective. When this happens you use the beginning sound of the adjective to decide which indefinite article you should use.  Here are some examples to help you understand.

A man

An old man

An elephant

A gray elephant

A desk

An orange desk

She lives in an apartment.

She lives in a new apartment.

Second exception to indefinite articles in English

I have hinted at the fact that in English some of our letters change the way they are pronounced in words. And this brings us to our second exception, the letter “H”. because ‘H’ is a consonant, we would naturally think that we use the indefinite article ‘a’ with it.

However, this is not always true. Here are some example to help you. Try saying them out loud and listen to the beginning sound of the words.

A harp

An hour

A hole

An honor

And here are some sentence examples:

He plays a harp in the band.

It will take me an hour to get there.

The dog dug a hole in the yard.

It is an honor to meet you.

Third exception to ‘a’ and ‘an’ in English

The third exception is like the second. It also refers to the fact that letters change how they are pronounced in English. However, this time it is with the letter ‘U’.

Here are examples to help you understand better:

An umbrella

A university

An unemployed

A union

And finally, here are some example sentences:

I have an

She goes to a university in Canada.

He is an unemployed driver.

They belong to a union at work.

Indefinite Articles in english


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About the author 

Jaimi Saunders

J’aimi has worked in the education industry for over 20 years, gaining experience in teaching, mentoring, and coaching. As a seasoned educator he is passionate about advancing teaching excellence and student motivation. In addition to working in the education industry, he is also involved in continuing his personal education and improvement. Outside of the office, J’aimi enjoys, antique vehicles, motorcycles, and travelling to new destinations.

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