If you were born before 1990, you probably remember this cringe-inducing slogan. You might even recall the awful jingle by the Homeless Man’s Rod Stewart. If not, you’re probably too young—and since you have yet to feel the fetid breath of the Reaper on your neck, you can just sit back and blissfully enjoy your peanut butter of choice.
Of course the topic for today is not being choosy about peanut butter, but it is about choice—or to be more precise, specificity. When talking about specifying things in the English language, one can start with articles.
What are articles?
Articles are adjectives that combine with nouns or noun phrases to indicate specificity. This may sound complex, like explaining why this zookeeper still has a job, but it’s not hard to understand. In English, we have three articles at our disposal—the, a, and an—and you use them every day.
The is our definite article, and as the term implies, it specifies something particular. For example, the sentence, “Let’s see the movie,” indicates that you have a specific film in mind, probably the latest direct-to-DVD gem from Steven Seagal.
If you say, however, “Let’s see a movie,” then you’re not indicating a particular movie. You could go for Sarah Palin’s The Undefeated or maybe even Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star. It doesn’t matter to you. A and an are indefinite articles: they refer to things, objects or people that are a specified part of a group.
A vs. An
Deciding when to use a or an is easy: use a before words starting with a consonant sound, and use an before words beginning with a vowel sound. Don’t pay too much attention to whether a vowel or consonant begins the word coming after the indefinite article, although that will point you in the right direction—just think about how it sounds if you were to speak it aloud. It’s that simple. Here are some examples:
See? Now you can be definitely confident when using indefinite articles.