A/An, Anyone?

April 30, 2021

Look at these little words:

a

an

any

one

Notice any similarities?  These common old words are closely related, and they’re literally Old English: the earliest form of English spoken in the centuries before the language was transformed by an infusion of Latin (via early French) starting about a thousand years ago.  

The similarities in spelling and meaning of a, an, any, and one help explain how to use our indefinite article a/an.  Consider these three simplified uses:

-1- a/an = one 

— I bought a bicycle yesterday = I bought one bicycle yesterday 

-2- a/an = any

A bicycle is great for getting around the city = Any bicycle is great for getting around the city

-3- a/an = one/any

— I’d like to get a bicycle for long-distance riding = I’d like to get one/any bicycle for long-distance riding

So a/an means one, any, or a blend of one & any!  

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-1- a/an = one 

— I bought a bicycle yesterday = I bought one bicycle yesterday 

“I” am aware of my new bicycle, but I know you’re not: you’re hearing/reading about it for the first time.  Even so, you immediately understand that it’s one particular bicycle, NOT just any bicycle.  

Such first-time references to singular count nouns that listeners or readers are not yet (or not fully) familiar with are usually introduced with a/an.  

More examples:

— We saw an eagle in Central Park = We saw one eagle in Central Park 

“We” know something about this eagle, but you’re NOT expected to know anything about it, so the first time we mention it, we introduce it with an.   

— My cousin works for a web design company = My cousin works for one web design company 

This is one of many web design companies, NOT any web design company: it’s a certain web design company that goes unnamed here.  The phrase “a certain” often conveys this meaning of a/an = one — “a particular one; one of many possible ones”: 

— My cousin works for a web design company = My cousin works for a certain [unnamed] web design company. 

So useful!  A/An is extremely efficient when you want to introduce a quick reference to a particular noun without bothering to name or describe it specifically in the same sentence

— Spinach is a leafy green vegetable = Spinach is one leafy green vegetable

Spinach is defined here as one type of leafy green vegetable.  There are many varieties of “leafy green vegetable,” and “Spinach” is just one of many.  Here, a/an = one means “a type of; one type among many possible types within a particular category.”  This reference to type is more abstract than our previous examples, which indicated one actual individual among many, but it still does NOT mean any type.

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-2- a/an = any

A bicycle is great for getting around the city = Any bicycle is great for getting around the city

Here, “A bicycle” is an abstraction, a generic concept of any bicycle.  This is not about “a certain” or “a particular” bicycle; it’s the general idea of the pedal-powered two-wheeled vehicle we call “bicycle.”

More examples:

— You should try a unicycle: it’s even more fun to ride = You should try any unicycle … 

I’m NOT thinking of a particular unicycle for you; I’m just making a quick remark about any member of the category of pedal-powered one-wheeled vehicles we call “unicycle.”

— I’d rather learn how to ride a horse = I’d rather learn how to ride any horse

For the purposes of this sentence, any horse will do.  No need to discuss particular horses or types of horse.  Here, horse means “horse in general; the concept of horse.”  

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-3- a/an = one/any

— I’d like to get a bicycle for long-distance riding = I’d like to get one/any bicycle for long-distance riding

This sentence blends the general idea of any bicycle and a degree of concreteness in the sense of one bicycle I could own in the future: a potentially particular bike!  It’s not one actual bike yet, but it’s not just any bike either: only certain types of bike will suit my purposes.  

More examples:

— We’re looking for a new apartment = We’re looking for one/any new apartment

One apartment?  Yes, of course: one is all we need, but we haven’t found the right one yet.  Any apartment?  Not exactly; we’re interested in size X, location Y, and price range Z.  But we’ll consider almost any apartment fitting our X/Y/Z description.  

— You should send her an email about that = You should send her one/any email about that

This is the mere thought of a hypothetical (any) email + a suggested actual (future one) email with a certain type of content.  So “an” has a blended one/any meaning here.

— I take a bath every evening = I take one/any bath every evening

This one-bath-per-evening is a recurring one, not a particular/individual one, so as a conceptual bath, it has a spirit of any.  It’s the idea (abstraction) of one of this type of NOUN (bath) per recurring time (any given evening).

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A quick review of the three simplified meanings of a/an:

-1- a/an = one = a certain; one particular; an actual/tangible individual; one among many; a type of 

-2- a/an = any = generic concept of; general idea of; abstract/hypothetical vision of 

-3- a/an = one/any = a potentially particular; hypothetical (any) but actualizable (one); a future one; a recurring one  

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An important point: a/an is for singular count nouns only.  Plural nouns can’t use it, since it refers to one, not more than one.  Noncount nouns can’t use it, since they can’t be counted with one or any other number.

As for a vs. an — for smooth pronunciation, article a partners with nouns beginning with a consonant sound, and an with nouns beginning with a vowel sound.  One tricky consonant issue is the hidden y- sound in some words beginning with the letter u, as in university (yu-nih-VER-sih-tee).  Remember to say “a university” and “a union.”

And watch out for silent initial h: words like honor begin with a vowel sound (for example, ah in honor or ow in hour).  Say “an honor” and “an hour.”  Finally, a couple of initial h words may be pronounced in different ways, like historian: a historian (with consonant h- sound) and an historian (with silent initial h) are both acceptable.  

If you’re wondering, “Hey, what about the — the other article in English?” look for a post on that topic here in the near future!

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An earlier version of this article appeared as two posts in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 23 & 30, 2021.

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