Grammar 5 min read

A or An: How to use Indefinite Articles

Main Takeaways:

  • Indefinite articles reference an unspecified or unknown item or quantity.
  • Use a before a word that begins with a consonant sound.
  • Use an before a word that begins with a vowel sound.
  • Use a definite article when referencing a specific item, location, or action.

When communicating with someone, should you introduce words with a or an? Indefinite articles can get tricky, but we’ll help you master them with this helpful guide.

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What are Indefinite Articles?

Indefinite articles reference an unknown or unspecified thing. They can also refer to a quantity. Articles such as a or an appear before nouns or their equivalents. They are a type of adjective.

When formatting a sentence, many writers struggle with choosing between a or an. Indefinite articles are confusing at times, but there are ways to remember which one you should use.

General Rules for A vs. An

  • Use a before a word that begins with a consonant sound.
  • Use an before a word that begins with a vowel sound.
Use indefinite articles a or an when you're referring to an unspecified or unknown item or quantity.
Use indefinite articles a or an when you’re referring to an unspecified or unknown item or quantity.
Tip: Say words out loud before you select a or an for your written work. Some words begin with a consonant that sounds like a vowel.

How to use A or An in a Sentence

This article focuses on two indefinite articles: a and an. As we discussed earlier, a appears before words that start with a consonant sound. We use an before words with a vowel sound.

Lucinda bought a gorgeous dress for her date.
Paul played an upbeat song during his workout.
Jessie brought a apple for lunch.
Cortez filed an request for vacation time.

Let’s review an example of a word that begins with a consonant that sounds like a vowel:

She said she’d be here an hour ago.
She said she’d be here a hour ago.

You should use an with hour, not a, because the ‘h’ is silent in hour. As a result, hour is pronounced with a vowel sound even though it starts with a consonant.

What are the Three Articles?

Though we’ve only discussed a and an so far, the is also an article. These three words commonly appear in sentences drafted in the English language, but they aren’t interchangeable. The is a definite article, not an indefinite article. A definite article references a specific person, item, quantity, or event.

Let’s take a look at how swapping indefinite articles with definite articles can impact your sentence.

#1: She attended a meeting.
#2: She attended an meeting.
#3: She attended the meeting.

Sentence #2 is not grammatically correct because meeting starts with a consonant sound, not a vowel sound. You can’t use an before the word meeting.

Sentence #1 and #3 are similar, but there are some differences. In the first sentence, you know the woman referenced attended a meeting. You just don’t know what meeting she attended.

The third sentence references a specific meeting. The woman attended the meeting, not a meeting. This sentence implies that the audience knows which meeting is referenced.

Is That an Indefinite Article?

That is not an indefinite article. However, that is a versatile word that can function as a definite article, adverb, conjunction, pronoun, or adjective.

Definite Articles:

Did you buy that book today?
I’m tired of dealing with that rude customer.
Is that ugly decor really necessary for the wedding?
Who is that client we saw at lunch last week?

Sometimes that and the may seem interchangeable, but there are slight differences. When you use that, you’re referencing a specific person, object, or action. There is sometimes less clarity with the word the, as it may reference several potential things.

#1: Did you go to the mall this afternoon?

The person asking this question just wants to know if you visited the mall today. They might have a specific mall in mind, but they haven’t clarified that. Even though the is a definite article, it isn’t always clear.

#2: Did you go to that mall today?

This person has a specific mall in mind. You’ve likely mentioned the mall to them in the past. Or perhaps, they’re pointing at a mall as you drive by it. Because of this, that is a definite article.

What are Definite Articles in a Sentence?

Definite articles are words that reference something known or specific. The is a definite article because it clarifies which thing, person, place, or event you are referencing.

She bought the ham her husband wanted.
He visited the state where he was born.
Ava’s son threw his blocks on the floor.
Carlie spilled the soda she was drinking.

These sentences contain definite articles because we know what, where, or whom they reference.

Here’s an easy sentence to help you remember definite articles:

I definitely need a definite article when I’m sure about something.

There is no doubt when you use definite articles. You know exactly what you’re referencing, and so does your audience. Stick with indefinite articles when you make vague comments or have an audience that doesn’t care about identity.

Read More: Wether vs. Weather vs. Whether: How to use Each Word Correctly

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Krista heads up Marketing and Content Creation here at INK. From Linguistics and History to puns and memes, she's interested in the systems we create to share our ideas with each other.

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