What Is the Indefinite Article? (with Examples)
Indefinite ArticleThe indefinite article is the word "a" or "an." It is used before a noun to define it as something non-specific (e.g., something generic or something mentioned for the first time).
- I'm a pirate. (This means an unspecified pirate, i.e., not one previously discussed.)
- I'm the pirate. (This means a specific murderer, i.e., the one previously discussed.)
More about the Indefinite ArticleArticles are classified as determiners. A determiner sits before a noun to indicate quantity, possession, specificity, or definiteness.
There are two types of articles:
- The Definite Article ("the")
- The Indefinite Article ("a" and "an").
- Pass me a hammer. (The hammer is non-specific; i.e., any hammer will do.)
- Pass me the hammer. (The hammer is specific. It's the hammer known to the speaker and the listener; e.g., the one they've just been using.)
- I need a chair. (any chair)
- I need the chair. (a specific chair)
Why Should I Care about Indefinite Articles?There are two commonly discussed issues related to indefinite articles.
(Issue 1) Choosing "an" or "a.""An" is used before a vowel sound, and "a" is used before a consonant sound. (The important word here is sound.)
Lots of words and abbreviations that start with vowels (typically "u") start with consonant sounds (e.g., unicorn, unique, united, Ouija, one-off), and lots of abbreviations that start with consonants start with vowel sounds (e.g., MOT, LRS, NTU).
- An MoD official and a MAFF official visited an NBC facility of a NATO country. (The M and the N of the initialisms MoD (Ministry of Defence) and NBC (Nuclear Biological and Chemical) are pronounced "en" and "em," i.e., with vowel sounds. The N and M of the acronyms NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) are pronounced "nuh" and "muh," i.e., with consonant sounds.)
- I had a unique opportunity to strike an unexpected blow. (Unique attracts "a" because it starts with the consonant sound "yuh." Unexpected attracts "an" because it starts with a vowel sound "uh.")
(Issue 2) Writing a job title or an office name with a lowercase letter.A job title (e.g., president, judge, director) or the name of office (parliament, court, accounts section) is written with a lowercase letter when the word is being used in its dictionary definition (i.e., as a common noun).
Some writers are tempted to give such terms capital letters either because the terms seem important (a terrible reason to give a word a capital letter) or because they become confused, knowing such terms can be written with capital letters when they refer to specific people or offices.
If the job title or office name is preceded by the indefinite article ("an" or "a"), there is a high chance it is being used in its dictionary definition (i.e., not as proper noun), in which case you must write it with a lowercase letter.
- The Prime Minister said: "Being a prime minister is a lonely job... you cannot lead from the crowd." (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher). [correct] (Here, The Prime Minister specifies an individual, but a prime minister does not. It is just the dictionary definition of the term prime minister. In other words, the first one is a proper noun, but the second is a common noun.)