A/An vs. The

Posted on Tuesday, March 21, 2017, at 6:55 pm

The English article: It seems simple enough, but sometimes it carries just enough nuance to prompt a review of linguistic accuracy.

For example, you’re looking out your front window at home. A car drives past outside. You turn to the person behind you and say, “I saw the car drive down the street.”

Why didn’t you say, “I saw a car drive down the street”?

The reason is that the articles a/an and the communicate definition or a lack thereof.

We use a/an when we want to identify:

  • a non-particular person or thing:
    Denise wants a kitten for her birthday. (a kitten in general, not a particular one)
  • an indefinite person or thing within a larger group or category:
    a child on the playground during lunchtime (one child among many)
  • something we don’t need to specify for knowledge or clarity:
    I caught a plane to California. (a general reference, or one plane among others with the same destination)

We also use an instead of a when the word following begins with a vowel sound: an egg, an omelet, an institute, an honor. A will always be followed by a word that starts with a consonant sound: a box, a trampoline, a hero, a unique opportunity.

We apply the, on the other hand, when we want to distinguish:

  • a particular person or thing known:
    Denise wants the kitten for her birthday. (a specific kitten she’s identified or the kitten instead of the puppy)
  • a definite person or thing within a larger group or category:
    the child on the playground during lunchtime (recognition of a particular child)
  • something we need to specify for knowledge or clarity:
    I caught the plane to California. (a reference to a particular flight or perhaps the only one)

Implementing what we’ve established, let’s return to your front window at home, where you could have just as well said you saw a car instead of the car.

But you didn’t, because you identified it as a particular thing known (the car delivering pizza to your neighbor’s party), a definite thing within a larger category (the only Porsche among your neighborhood’s many cars), or something you needed to specify for understanding (the car in which your daughter is returning from college).

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