July 30, 2014

Articles: the Grammar Series

To begin this series, I thought we'd tackle one of the lesser-known rules of grammar that not very many people pay much attention to but is, in my opinion, pretty important.


Articles are those tiny words in a sentence that help to determine how many of a thing are being talked about.  We have three articles in the English language - 'the', 'a', and 'an'.  

The article 'the' is called definite, meaning, it refers to something specific.  The book.  The car.  The movie.  When you use 'the', it's clear exactly which thing you're talking about.  It refers to something you can point at or touch.

The articles 'a' and 'an' are called indefinite, meaning, they refer to something general.  A bug.  A song.  An elephant.  An uncle.  When you use 'a' or 'an', you can't point to or touch the thing you're referencing, because it could be any number of things in a group.

If I have a bunch of grapes, I can offer one to you.  I would not ask, "Would you like the grape?", unless I had picked one single grape out of the bunch and were handing just that one grape to you.  That would be silly, though.  Instead, I would ask, "Would you like a grape?"  In that case, I'm holding out the bunch of grapes toward you, and you are free to choose whichever grape from the bunch you would like.

How do we know when to use 'a' and when to use 'an'?  Can we just choose whichever we like, willy-nilly?  No, there are rules that determine when to use which article.  

The simplest way I can think to remember these rules is to remember your vowels and consonants.  Vowels being 'a, e, i, o, u' and consonants being the rest of the letters of the alphabet.

The article 'a' is always used when the word that follows it begins with a consonant.  A dog.  A fig.  A yam.

The article 'an' is always used when the word that follows it begins with a vowel.  An oval.  An egg.  An umbrella.

As with most rules, though, there is one exception.  Even though the letter 'h' is a consonant, the article 'an' is often used when the word that follows it begins with 'h'.  An honest man.  An hourglass.  An historical fiction.

What about words like habit, or happy, or hospital, or harpoon.  It sounds clumsy to say 'an habit' or 'an happy'.  

The secret lies in the syllables.  If a word beginning with 'h' is said with the emphasis on any syllable other than the first, you will always use the article 'an'.  An hotel.  An humongous mountain.  An habitual coffee break.  If, however, the emphasis is on the first syllable, you'll use the article 'a'.  A happy man.  A hardened criminal.  A hankering for cheese.

Honestly, though, the 'h' rule is becoming outdated.  Following the 'h' rule often leaves your speech and writing sounding clunky and odd.  It's acceptable to use your own judgment here.  If you feel silly saying, "Let's go find an Halloween costume store," then, by all means, use the article 'a', instead.

If you found this post useful, or if you have any questions about it, please do leave me a comment.  I'll be posting several more in the Grammar Series, and if I've helped just one person, then it will have been worth it.

Next Post:  That, Which, Who

Previous Post:  The English Language: does it matter?

1 comment:

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