Use of the Indefinite Article

What is an article?

A key category of Parts of Speech in English grammar, Articles double up as adjectives helping us to modify Nouns, marking them as Indefinite / Definite.

‘A’ and ‘an’ are Indefinite Articles helping to mark a Noun as Non-specific or Non-particular Noun.

E.g. I would like to read abook. (Any book, nothing specific in consideration).

‘A’ or ‘an’ thus mark a Noun as Indefinite referring to it as any random member of a group, where one is easily replaceable by another.

e.g.: My son demands a puppy for his Birthday. (Any puppy)

While at the zoo, I saw an elephant. (Any elephant, nothing in particular)


The choice of using one over the other that is a/an depends on the sound of the first letter alphabet rather than the actual letter.

·  ‘A’ will be used before all Consonant sounding first letter singular countable Nouns.

e.g: a boy, a car, a table, a pencil

All first letter singular consonant sound Nouns are preceded by the article ‘a’

e.g.: a pet, a hen, a door, a table

The following conditions apply in special cases:

1. Where the first letter and the sound has a discrepancy in pronunciation, i.e. the first letter might start with a vowel but it is pronounced as a consonant.

 (‘U’ / ‘e’ pronounced as ‘y’)

e.g.:  a used napkin

a union

a European trip

a university

(‘O’ pronounced as ‘w’)

e.g.: A one-legged man

2. Article ‘a’ is not used before a word in which the first letter ‘h’ remains silent.

e.g. – hour, honest, honourable

·         ‘An’ will be used before all vowel sounding first letter singular, countable Nouns.

e.g.: an acrobat, an electron, an igloo, an orphan, an uncle.

‘An’ is also used in the following conditions:

1.  ‘An’ is used as an article with words which start with the letter ‘h’ but ‘h’ remains silent.

e.g.:       an hour, an honest man, an honourable treaty.

2.  ‘An’ is also used with all such words which start with consonants but pronounced as vowels. E.g. ‘f’ (pronounced as ‘eff’)

e.g.:       An M.B.A degree.

An M.A in English.


Special Note

·    If there is an Adjective or Adverb Adjective combination before the Noun, A (AN) should agree with the first sound in the Adjective or the Adverb AdjectiveCombination.

e.g.:       I saw a truly magnificent eagle in the sky.

He is an exemplary student.

• There are certain words in the English lexicon such as ‘herb’ or ‘hospital’; which are pronounced differently in different English accents.

In American accents where the ‘h’ is silent in the word ‘herb’, it is common to use ‘an herb’ whereas the natives of Great Britain prefer ‘a herb’ since ‘h’ is pronounced over there.

Similarly British accents consider ‘h’ silent in hospital, therefore it is ‘an’ hospital’ in British usage but Americans use ‘a hospital’ since ‘h’ is pronounced over there.

• A / AN is never used before Uncountable/ Plural Nouns.

Words like air, salt, fun, advice do not make use of either a / an.

e.g.:  I do not need a advice. (Wrong)

         I do not need advice.

English Grammar and Composition

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