A/An vs. The

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).

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

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16 Comments on A/An vs. The

16 responses to “A/An vs. The

  1. Hiromichi Watanabe says:

    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. (……… or the kitten instead of the puppy)

    I don’t understand the above.
    Can we say ” Denise wants a kitten instead of a puppy for her birthday.” ?

    • Yes, but writing “the kitten” instead of “a kitten” indicates that the sentence is referring to a particular kitten, not just a kitten in general.

      • Hiromichi Watanabe says:

        Thanks for your comments. If so, “the kitten instead of the puppy” should have been ” this kitten instead of that kitten”?

        • Either sentence could be correct:
          Denise wants the kitten instead of the puppy indicates that she had a choice between one kitten and one puppy, and she chose the kitten.
          Denise wants this kitten instead of that kitten indicates that she had a choice between two kittens, and she chose this kitten.

  2. Jim Lynch says:

    What is the difference between an appositive and a non-restrictive clause?

    • A nonrestrictive clause is an adjective clause that adds extra or nonessential information to a sentence. An appositive is a word or word group that renames, defines, or further identifies the noun or noun phrase preceding it. An appositive may be restrictive or non-restrictive.
      My friend Jim Lynch recently asked me a question. (restrictive)
      Jim Lynch, my friend, recently asked me a question. (non-restrictive)

  3. Stephanie Jackel says:

    I was looking for the place to submit a question, and this appears to be the only place. I really enjoy the Grammar Book!
    My request is for a ruling on use of words like “preventative” instead of “preventive;” “administrate” instead of “administer;” “orientate” instead of “orient.”

    • The Chicago Manual of Style has this to say about preventive and orientate:
      “Although the corrupt form preventative (with the superfluous syllable in the middle) is fairly common, the strictly correct form is preventive.”
      “To orient is to get one’s bearings or point another in the right direction (literally to find east) {it took the new employee a few days to get oriented to the firm’s suite}. Unless used in the sense ‘to face or turn to the east,’ orientate is a poor variation to be avoided. It is a back-formation from the noun orientation, analogous to the illegitimate interpretate for interpret.”
      CMOS does not have any reference to the word administrate, although the dictionaries we consulted acknowledge it as a less common form of administer.

  4. Linda says:

    I received an email regarding the correct use for A / An vs. The.
    After reading the e-newsletter I took the quiz.
    To my surprise, I didn’t do a great job.
    I’m now confused regarding vowels. In elementary school I was taught vowels are: A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y.
    According to the quiz the letter H is a vowel. This is not correct.
    Please clarify this.

    • The letter H is not a vowel. Perhaps you misunderstood our rule stating “We also use an instead of a when the word following begins with a vowel sound.” This does not mean a word that begins with a vowel. Many words and abbreviations that start with the letter H begin with a vowel sound when pronounced.
      Examples: honor, hour, HTML, HMO

  5. KellyRae Cooper says:

    Please tell me why, in the recent quiz to choose a/an, MADD is treated differently than NBAA. Both have an initial vowel sound when spelling out the acronym (/em/ initial vowel sound for MADD and /en/ initial vowel sound for NCAA). However, question 3 answer was A (a) and question 9 answer was B (an). Why? I speculate ‘a’ was chosen for MADD because the reader could say ‘mad’ which is a consonant sound (rather than say each letter) and ‘an’ was chosen for NCAA because the reader wouldn’t say ‘knack-a.’

    Please advise. I am truly curious and this is a hot button for me when proofreading coworkers’ documents.

  6. Ricky Urban says:

    As a point of fact, Historic seems to have an audible “H” in America, but not in England. Does it then become correct to use “an” in England, but “A” in America? Is it just a colloquialism at that point?

    • Yes, it could be different in England vs. the U.S. We should follow the pronunciation rule: use an when the word following begins with a vowel sound, and use a when the word following starts with a consonant sound.

  7. Janise says:

    This seems to be a vicious topic among medical transcriptionists, whether to use a or an when referring to RHIT or MT or MTSO (registered health information technician), (medical transcriptionist), (medical transcription service owner). Could you clarify, please, and explain why? Thank you.

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