A Simple Guide to Indefinite Articles
  • 4-minute read
  • 12th March 2022

A Simple Guide to Indefinite Articles

Confused about indefinite articles and wanting to brush up on your English grammar? This helpful guide provides a definition of indefinite articles and explains how to use them correctly.

Indefinite Articles: A Definition

An indefinite article is a word (“a” or “an” in English) used to introduce a noun or noun phrase and implies that the noun referred to is non-specific or is being referred to for the first time. For example:

I bought a magazine at the supermarket yesterday.

Here’s an interesting fact…

In these sentences, “magazine” and “interesting fact” are non-specific, so there are no other details provided about them. It can also be assumed that they’re being referred to for the first time. Otherwise, a definite article (“the” in English) would have been used instead. 

When Do You Use “a” and When Do You Use “an”?

The rule about the use of “a” and “an” depends on the first letter of the following word. The general rule is that you use “an” before words beginning with vowels and “a” before words beginning with consonants. Have a look at these examples:

He owns a cat, a small dog, and two goldfish. (In this example, “c” and “s” are consonants, so “a” is used).

I ate an apple for lunch. (Here, the “a” in “apple” is a vowel, so “an” is needed).

However, there are exceptions to the rule! Read on for more information…

Hard Vowels

A hard vowel is a vowel that sounds like a consonant. Some examples of words beginning with a hard vowel are “uniform” and “European.” These words start with a “you-” (consonant) sound rather than an “oo-” (vowel) sound. Because these words start with a consonant sound, you should precede them by “a” rather than “an,” as shown below:

✘ She has an unique accent.

She has a unique accent.

Silent Consonants

The other issue to look out for is when a word begins with a silent “h.” There are a number of words like this, such as “honor,” “hour,” and “heir.” These words should be preceded by “an,” as they begin with a vowel sound. This category includes the word “herb” in American English, where the “h” is silent, but not in British English, where the “h” is pronounced. Look at these examples:

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✘ I’ll see you in a hour.

✔ I’ll see you in an hour.

✘ Rosemary is a herb that works well with lamb.

Rosemary is an herb that works well with lamb.

Remember that words beginning with a pronounced “h” sound should always be preceded by “a”:

✘ We ate an hearty breakfast.

We ate a hearty breakfast.

There are several English words starting with “h” that used to be pronounced with a silent “h.” These include “helicopter,” “hotel,” and “hospital.” You may come across the use of “an” preceding these words because of their historical pronunciation, but it’s incorrect.

Summary

“A” and “an” are indefinite articles in English, which means they’re words that introduce nouns in a general, non-specific way. As a rule, “a” is used before words that start with a consonant, and “an” is used before words that start with a vowel. However, this rule only applies to the sound that a word starts with, rather than the letter. Words with hard vowels, such as “united,” are preceded by “a,” while words that start with soft consonants, such as “honorary,” are preceded by “an.”

We hope this has been a useful introduction to an unexpectedly complex issue, but if you need any further help with your grammar or any other aspect of your writing, why not try our proofreading services for free?

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