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A/An vs. The
The English article: It seems simple enough, but sometimes it carries just
enough nuance to prompt a review of linguistic accuracy.
For example, you’re looking out your front window at home. A car
drives past outside. You turn to the person behind you and say, “I
saw the car drive down the street.”
Why didn’t you say, “I saw a car drive down the street”?
The reason is that the articles a/an and the communicate
definition or a lack thereof.
We use a/an when we want to identify:
We also use an instead of a when the word following
begins with a vowel sound: an egg, an omelet, an institute, an honor. A will always be followed by a word that starts with a consonant
sound: a box, a trampoline, a hero, a unique opportunity.
- a non-particular person or thing:
Denise wants a kitten for her birthday. (a kitten in general, not a
- an indefinite person or thing within a larger group or category:
a child on the playground during lunchtime (one child among many)
- something we don’t need to specify for knowledge or clarity:
I caught a plane to California. (a general reference, or one plane among
others with the same destination)
We apply the, on the other hand, when we want to
Implementing what we’ve established, let’s return to your front
window at home, where you could have just as well said you saw a
car instead of the car.
- a particular person or thing known:
Denise wants the kitten for her birthday. (a specific kitten she’s identified or the kitten instead of the puppy)
- a definite person or thing within a larger group or category:
the child on the playground during lunchtime (recognition of a particular
- something we need to specify for knowledge or clarity:
I caught the plane to California. (a reference to a particular flight or
perhaps the only one)
But you didn’t, because you identified it as a particular thing known
(the car delivering pizza to your neighbor’s party), a definite thing
within a larger category (the only Porsche among your neighborhood’s
many cars), or something you needed to specify for understanding (the car
in which your daughter is returning from college).
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