In a recent post, we discussed how indefinite article a/an introduces a singular count noun for listeners/readers who are NOT expected to be familiar with it yet:

I bought a bicycle yesterday.

Such a first mention of a noun often starts a story or description: 

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.  The bike is built for long-distance riding, so it’s really sturdy.  I plan to take trips with it on country backroads.

… or a conversation:

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.

B: Really?  How much did the bicycle cost?

After introducing “a bicycle,” we can switch to definite article the, since the bicycle is now familiar in context.

Here’s some good news: the is used in the same way for singular, plural & noncount nouns, so you don’t have to worry about grammatical number:

A: We saw two eagles in Central Park.

B: Wow!  What were the eagles doing?

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A: I gave my nephew some advice.

B: Oh yeah?  What was the advice about?

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And no worries about grammatical gender, either — no feminine, masculine, or neuter forms to keep track of (as in French, where the-equivalents la & le apply to feminine & masculine nouns, respectively). Thankfully, in modern English, the is always just the 

More good news: the is similar to its “th-cousins” this, that, these, those, which helps us understand WHY we use it.  All five words point at specific nouns or definite concepts, and their th– spelling suggests a close relationship.  This, that, these & those point more emphatically at their target nouns than the, but all five words’ pointing function — indicating something specific or definite — is often similar.

So it can be useful to consider the a short form of this, that, these, those.  Notice the meanings of this, that & those in the dialogs below are nearly identical with the preceding the-versions:

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.

B: Really?  How much did this bicycle cost? 

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the bicycle”)

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A: We saw two eagles in Central Park.

B: Wow!  What were those eagles doing? 

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the eagles”)

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A: I gave my nephew some advice.

B: Oh yeah?  What was that advice about?

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the advice”)

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However, sometimes the is not exactly equivalent to this, that, these, those.  This happens when we refer to generally understood concepts/institutions or nouns that listeners/readers are expected to be familiar with.  

For example, if I say I’m going to “the bank” today, I usually mean “some branch or other of whatever bank I use”; “one of those places we call ‘bank,’” NOT “this bank” or “that bank.”

This leads to more good news: you can use the the first time you refer to nouns in such ways! Here are some examples:

a) Unique or ubiquitous nouns:

The sun is about 93 million miles from the earth.

I love the night sky when the air is clear and the stars are bright.

The weather is getting warmer as the environment is changing fast.

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b) Common/familiar concepts, types of places & institutions in everyday life:

In the morning, I plan to go to the post office and the library. 

Would you rather live in the city, the suburbs or the country?

I prefer the beach: I love gazing at the ocean.  

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c) Nouns referred to generically (general, abstract meaning):

The giraffe is known for its long neck, and the elephant for its long trunk.

Was the harpsichord an early version of the piano?

Tech companies plan to further miniaturize the smartwatch and implant it in the human body.

One interesting note: this meaning of the can sometimes be conveyed by a/an in its generic meaning of “any”:

The unicycle is a one-wheeled, pedal-propelled vehicle.  

A unicycle is a one-wheeled, pedal-propelled vehicle.  

As definitions of “unicycle,” these two sentences are interchangeable.  They both express “unicycle as a concept; any unicycle.”

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d) Nouns immediately understood in context (in a particular situation or given scenario):

What’s the problem?

Pass me the dictionary, please.

Turn off the lights and come down to the lobby.

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If you can enjoy understanding & using the, then here’s some final good news: it’s the most commonly occurring word in English — so that’s about a thousand bits of enjoyment in an average English-speaking day!


An earlier version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on May 13, 2021.

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?” link to my post on that topic here: The Good News About “The”!

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An earlier version of this article appeared as two posts (part 1, part 2) in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 22 & 29, 2021.