- Correctly identify and use indefinite and definite articles
Well, if you thought prepositions were “little” words, wait until we consider the part of speech called articles. Articles are similar to adjectives in that they modify nouns, but unlike adjectives, they don’t really describe a noun; they just identify a noun.
Articles are the smallest of the small but still serve an important function. We have three articles in the English language: a, an and the.
The is the definite article, which means it refers to a specific noun in a group.
A or an is the indefinite article, which means it refers to any member of a group. You would use the indefinite article when you aren’t trying to distinguish a particular noun.
The definite article indicates a level of specificity that the indefinite does not. “An apple” could refer to any apple; however “the apple” is referring to a specific apple. There are also cases in which no article is required:
- with generic nouns (plural or uncountable): cars have accelerators, happiness is contagious—which refer to cars and happiness in general (as compared with the happiness I felt yesterday, which specifies particular happiness)
- with most proper names: Sabrina, France, London, etc.
In English, the indefinite article takes the two forms a and an. These can be regarded as meaning “one,” usually without emphasis.
Distinction between a and an
You’ve probably learned the rule that an comes before a vowel, and that a comes before a consonant. While this is generally true, it’s more accurate to say that an comes before a vowel sound, and a comes before a consonant sound. Let’s look at a few examples with a:
- a box
- a HEPA filter (HEPA is pronounced as a word rather than as letters)
- a one-armed bandit (pronounced “won. . . “)
- a unicorn (pronounced “yoo. . . “)
And now with an:
- an apple
- an EPA policy (the letter E read as a letter still starts with a vowel sound)
- an SSO (pronounced “es-es-oh”)
- an hour (the h is silent)
- an heir (pronounced “air”)
The definite article the is used when the referent of the noun phrase is assumed to be unique or known from the context. For example, in the sentence “The boy with glasses was looking at the moon,” we can assume that, in this context, the reference is to only one boy and only one moon.
The can be used with both singular and plural nouns, with nouns of any gender, and with nouns that start with any letter. This is different from many other languages, which have different articles for different genders or numbers. The is the most commonly used word in the English language.
In most cases, the article is the first word of its noun phrase, preceding all other adjectives and modifiers.
The little old red bag held a very big surprise.
There are a few exceptions, however:
- Certain determiners, such as all, both, half, and double, precede the definite article when used in combination (all of the team, both of the girls, half the time, double the amount).
- Such and what precede the indefinite article (such an idiot, what a day!).
- Adjectives qualified by too, so, as, and how generally precede the indefinite article: too great a loss, so hard a problem, as delicious an apple as I have ever tasted, I know how pretty a girl she is.
- When adjectives are qualified by quite (particularly when it means “fairly”), the word quite (but not the adjective itself) often precedes the indefinite article: quite a long letter. Note: the phrase a quite long letter is also a correct construction. However the two have different meanings:
- In quite a long letter, quite modifies letter: it’s quite a letter.
- In a quite long letter, quite modifies long: the letter is quite long.
Read the following passage and make any necessary changes to the articles. Explain your reasoning for each change.
A Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is a space telescope that was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990 and remains in operation. Although not the first space telescope, Hubble is one of the largest and most versatile, and is well known as both an vital research tool and an public relations boon for astronomy. The HST is named after the astronomer Edwin Hubble.
Hubble’s orbit outside the distortion of Earth’s atmosphere allows it to take extremely high-resolution images. Hubble has recorded the some of most detailed visible-light images ever, allowing the deep view into space and time.
(1) The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is a space telescope that was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990, and remains in operation. Although not the first space telescope, Hubble is one of the largest and most versatile, and is well known as both (2) a vital research tool and (3) a public relations boon for astronomy. The HST is named after the astronomer Edwin Hubble.
Hubble’s orbit outside the distortion of Earth’s atmosphere allows it to take extremely high-resolution images. Hubble has recorded (4) some of the most detailed visible-light images ever, allowing (5) a deep view into space and time.
Why were these changes necessary?
- There is only one Hubble Space Telescope, so it requires the definite article, the.
- Vital starts with a consonant sound, so it requires a, not an.
- Public starts with a consonant sound, so it requires a, not an.
- As we discussed, phrases like “some of” are exceptions to the general word order rule, and they come before articles.
- There are several different views into space, and this is just one of them. Thus, we need to use the indefinite article. Deep starts with a consonant, so it requires a, not an.