Definition and Examples of Indefinite Articles

In English, the indefinite article is the determiner a or an, which marks an unspecified count noun. As a general rule, in contrast to the definite article (the), a and an don't point to any noun in particular

In both speech and writing, the article a is generally used before a word that starts with a consonant sound ("a bat," "a unicorn"). The article an is generally used before a word that starts with a vowel sound ("an uncle," "an hour").

The articles a and an originated as reduced pronunciations of the word one.

Examples and Observations

  • "Mr. Arable fixed a small yard specially for Wilbur under an apple tree, and gave him a large wooden box full of straw, with a doorway cut in it so he could walk in and out as he pleased."
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web. Harper, 1952)
  • "It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."
    (Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. Harper, 1966)
  • My dad is an L.A. Lakers supporter, but I'm a Utah Jazz fan.
  • "It's never just a game when you're winning."
    (George Carlin)
  • "In the course of a career stretching back a quarter of a century he has published three books, none of which has caused a stir or even a ripple."
    (J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace. Secker & Warburg, 1999)
  • “[H]ave a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.”
    (Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865)
  • "An artist is only an ordinary man with a greater potentiality--same stuff, same make up, only more force."
    (D.H. Lawrence, 1913)
  • "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading."
    (Samuel Johnson, quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)
  • Use of A and An in Narratives
    "A's rightful literary place is in narrative. In the opening line of a novel, a story, or a fairy tale, as we begin to be told what happened once upon a time, the natural progression is to be introduced to a person and situation, and then gradually be filled in on their particularity. And so Hardy commences Tess of the D'Urbervilles: 'On an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward.'"
    (Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Broadway Books, 2007)
  • Use of A and An Before Singular Count Nouns
    "Count nouns denote people and things which are treated as units. They refer to objects, people, abstract entities, etc. which are perceived as easily counted. Count nouns have both a singular and a plural form. The indefinite article a/an can be used with count nouns in the singular. Numerals can also be used in front of count nouns:
    I'd prefer a cat to a a dog. Cats are interesting.
    Three cars were involved in the accident.
    Singular count nouns cannot stand without a determiner."
    (R. Carter and M. McCarthy, Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • Use of A Before Historic
    - "After many years, people still need to be told to talk about a historical novel, and a hotel, not an hotel . . .. The rule is that words beginning with an H only take an when they begin with a genuinely silent H, like heir, honour, hour and their derivatives. Words that merely look on paper as if they begin with a vowel sound, like one, use and euphoria, are preceded by a, not an, as you must know."
    (Kingsley Amis, The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage. HarperCollins, 1997)

    - "The ever-popular an historic is incorrect, at least for American speakers, because historic does not begin with a vowel sound."
    (Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English. McGraw-Hill, 2004)