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Definite Ideas About Definite and Indefinite Articles

Take a look at this sentence from a restaurant review that was sent in by a reader:

The restaurant operates with an efficiency and authority that defy the chaos in the pleasant but cramped room.

Is it correct to use the indefinite article an in front of an abstract noun (efficiency)? If so, should we also use an in front of authority?

Although abstract nouns don’t always have to take articles, notice how the sentence above feels incomplete¬† if we leave the article out: The restaurant operates with efficiency and authority that defy the chaos in the pleasant but cramped room.

Revised: The restaurant operates with efficiency and authority, defying the chaos in the pleasant but cramped room.

If you wish to use articles in front of multiple abstract nouns, you need to check if the nouns are acting as a single unit or separately. In the sentence sent in by the reader, efficiency and authority could be seen as acting as a one-unit compound noun. Therefore, the sentence is fine as is.

When compound nouns are considered one unit, you may drop the second article.

Example from The Chicago Manual of Style: The horse and rider appear to be one entity.

Instead of: The horse and the rider appear to be one entity.

Note that one-article compound nouns (the horse and rider) still take plural verb forms (appear).

Example of nouns acting separately: She proceeded with a plan and a desire to make it better.

You can also have a compound noun containing an abstraction (no article) and an object (article required):

Example: Diligence and a needle fix many problems.

Posted on Thursday, February 5, 2009, at 10:13 am


21 Comments on Definite Ideas About Definite and Indefinite Articles

21 responses to “Definite Ideas About Definite and Indefinite Articles”

  1. Hari H. says:

    I am doubtful about the need for the articles – A/AN/The. Can you please elaborate on the same. It will be very helpful.

    • Jane says:

      Briefly, the words a, an, and the are called “articles.” A and an are called indefinite articles, while the is known as a definite article. That is because a and an refer to nonspecific things, while the refers to specific things. I have more guidance on how to use a and an on the website under the tab “English Rules” at Spelling, Vocabulary, and Confusing Words. Another good reference is the Purdue Online Writing Lab, “Using Articles.”

  2. LuKa591 says:

    Do you say: may I get a table? Or may I get an table? When you go to a restaurant. I was always under the impression that it is a table, but someone corrected me the other day and told me it is an table. I got really confused.

  3. rossy rodriguez says:

    How do I say?

    Sara can play the guitar? or Sara can play guitar?

  4. rena says:

    Why is the definite article used with an adjective?

    In the name of Allah (God), the Compassionate, the Merciful.

  5. Karthick says:

    Hi Jane,

    I have a doubt regarding the usage of articles before nouns such as application, determination, and analysis. I have given example sentences below.

    My questions:
    1. Should we put “the” before “Application” and “Analysis,” becuause they are modified by “of” phrases.
    2. Are they abstract nouns?
    3. If the nouns (application, determination) are not followed by “of” phrases, can we leave the nouns without an article?

    Example sentences:
    1. Application of bifidobacteria in probiotics is particularly timely, as these microorganisms have been found to be amongst the most important representatives of human microbiocenosis.
    2. Analysis of the obtained results shows that all represented microorganisms have intense biochemical activity, which is evidenced by the number of viable cells.

  6. Naomi F. says:

    In written text, do you say ‘She has a M.A. in Applied Linguistics’ or ‘She has an M.A. in Applied Linguistics’?

  7. Ana says:

    In my native language we don’t have article so I was wondering, concerning the usage of article with abstract nouns, are there some general rules when should we use definite/indefinite article and when we should’t use article at all with abstract nouns?

  8. Mikhail says:

    Hi, please, explain absence of indefinite article before wishes and congratulations like: happy new year! Merry Christmas! Is it possible to say: merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

  9. Saad says:

    Greetings,

    I’m confused about one thing, could we use article in front of “admission”, I once put the article “the” in front of admission but someone later on told me that it was wrong to use the I must use “an” for example : I have got an admission at a University?

    • The article an is correct in your sentence, but the wording is awkward. We recommend rewriting. Better choices might be “I was accepted to a university” or “I received an admission letter from a university.”

  10. Nancy says:

    A question: Why do we say, “The referee and the players did something” not “The referee and players did something?”

    • Both sentences are grammatically correct, but they mean slightly different things. If you put another “the” before “players,” you imply that the referee and the players were acting separately. Without the second “the,” the referee and players were acting together.

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