a/an, or the?

How do we correctly use a, an and the in English?


A, an and the are all articles. Articles help us to identify or qualify a noun

A, and an are both indefinite articles and mean “one”:

  • I have a blue car means that I have one (1) blue car

It is an indefinite article because it does not define exactly which car I am talking about. If I see five blue cars in the street I will not know which car is yours.

The is a definite article, this means that it defines which one:

  • The blue car that is parked in front of the bread shop is mine. So now we know which blue car is mine.

Beware we cannot say:

  • I like the apples if we are talking about apples in general …. but we can say:
  • I like the apples from the tree in my friend’s garden. In this case we know which apples I like.

After you finish here try these English language grammar exercises >>

What is the difference between a and an?

Both “a” and “an” mean the same ……. they mean one (1) The only difference being that “a” is used in front of nouns, or adjectives in front of nouns, that have a consonant sound at the beginning of the word:

  • a pen, a holiday, a girl, a handsome man, a table, a pretty dress

“an” is used in front of nouns that begin with a vowel sound;

  • an orange, an umbrella, an ugly duckling

But notice that we say

  • a university, a union but we say an onion, an engineer

Why? Onion and engineer are pronounced with a vowel sound at the beginning of the word. Please note that I say a vowel sound and not just a vowel letter (a,e,i,o,u).

But university and union begin with a “u” that is not pronounced as a vowel. We pronounce the letter “u” in university and union in the same we pronounce the word “you” and that is NOT a vowel sound.

Some words such as “hotel” are said with “an” before it and sometimes with “a”. This happens because some people drop their “hs”. The standard pronunciation of the “h” in hotel is the same as the “h” in hello. In this case we would say “we are staying in a hotel in London”. But people who pronounce the first syllable of hotel like the word “oh” would say “we are staying in an hotel in London”

The above rules must also be applied to adjectives that come before the noun.

  • She has an orange car

These English grammar lessons might give you extra help

When can we use the correctly?