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an > a

an was the Old English word for "one".


  • a [ə] is used before a consonant sound (a quarter note, a half note, a whole note, a holy otter)
  • a [ə] is also used before glides (semi-vowels) like /w/ and /j/ (a week, a one-day layover, a year, a uniform, a use [ju:s]
  • an [ən, æn] is used before a vowel sound (an 8th note, an old note, an utter silence, another sound )
  • Curious dialectal phenomenon: a whole other story often becomes: a whole 'nother story. (in North Central American)


indefinite article

a is called an indefinite article or indefinite determiner1 because in a noun phrase (NP) like "a solution", no definite solution is necessarily referred to:

  • I'm sure we'll be able to find a solution. I have no idea what it will look like, but we'll find one.

On the other hand, when one person says to another: Look, there's a fat cat on the roof! the person speaking has seen the cat, and knows the person listening hasn't seen it. Otherwise the speaker would say Look, at that fat cat!


a or an can only precede a singular common noun (which itself can be preceded by adjectives). It can precede some present participles, particularly those which have been reanalyzed as nouns: A drubbing, a reading, etc. These cases remain quite rare, contrary to the way in which these participles are used in French: un footing, un jogging, un pressing, etc. All of these borrowings represent French syntax, not English syntax.

It contrasts with the zero article which precedes indefinite plural nouns: There are __ problems with the contract.

It likewise contrasts with cardinal numbers followed by a plural noun and no) followed by a singular noun (uncountables: no software) or a plural noun (countables: no problem(s)).

It also contrasts with the definite article the.</p>

It can be pre-modified by a number of pre-determiners:

  • What a mess!
  • Ironing is such a waste of time.
  • (There's) Never a dull moment with them.
  • Many a man said nary a word. (in "literary" language: "nary" = "not" (perhaps from ne'er + -y))
  • That's quite a story!

1 In modern grammar, articles are said to "determine" nouns, along with other words once considered to be adjectives, but which are now considered to be determiners (possessives for example: your, her, our, his, their, my; quantifiers: any, many, no, some...).

indefinite determiner