When to use A and AN | Grammar Lesson (PART 1) Indefinite Articles

Lesson Overview

Lesson Summary 

We are learning how & when to use A and AN – the indefinite articles in English grammar! I’ve got 4 simple rules you must learn plus, some pronunciation practice so you use A & AN naturally when you speak!

As always, I’ve included a practice QUIZ at the end ☑️ to test yourself and help you review what you learned in this lesson!

This lesson is PART 1 of a series of lessons, where I’ll teach you everything you need to know about English articles so you can stop making grammar mistakes! PART 2 is all about the definite article (the) and when to not use an article at all. Plus, in PART 2 you will be able to download the complete articles worksheet I’ve created for you to practise using English articles accurately!


Video Transcript
Section 1

Well hey there I’m Emma from mmmEnglish.

Today we are talking about English articles. Those little tiny but super important words that you will need to use in almost every English sentence.

Here’s the thing, if you’re making mistakes with articles in your spoken English, it’s unlikely that native speakers will correct you because, let’s be honest, we can usually work out what you mean despite your mistakes, but they will be noticed.

There are two types of articles in English: definite and indefinite. Today we’re going to focus on the indefinite article and that is ‘a/an’.

You’ll see that when my next video comes out it is a deep dive into the definite article ‘the’.

So make sure you’re subscribed, that you turn on notifications, so that you don’t miss out. I want you to be able to watch this complete package of lessons about articles.

Let’s get into the first one.

Okay, in this lesson I have four simple rules to help you use indefinite articles accurately.

I’m also going to show you how to pronounce a and an naturally when you speak and at the end I have a quiz to help you practise everything you learn just to make sure all of these rules are locked into your memory and you can use them when you need them.

Let’s start with the basics.

Indefinite Article Grammar

There are two indefinite articles. You should know this by now because I’ve already mentioned them. Tell me, what are they?

A, an. But do you know when and why we need to use each one? We use a with nouns that begin with a consonant sound.

  • A cat
  • A mirror
  • A fan
  • A zoo

All of these nouns start with a consonant: c, m, f, z.

We use an before nouns that begin with a vowel sound.

  • An apple
  • An ice cream
  • An orange
  • An umbrella

So we use an before a word that starts with a vowel: a, i, o, and u.

But there is something super important that you need to remember here and that is that we’re talking about vowel and consonant sounds not letters.

I know it sounds crazy but not all vowel letters are pronounced as vowel sounds and some consonant letters are actually silent and they’re not pronounced at all. Let me show you what I mean.

University. Umbrella.

So the u in university is pronounced “you”. University. As if it’s written with the consonant letter y. That sound y. We say university. So the article we use is a university.

Now the u in umbrella is pronounced “a”. Umbrella.

So this time the u is pronounced as a vowel sound so we need to use an, an umbrella.

It’s the same with these two examples: orange and one-off event.

So the o in orange is pronounced o. That’s a vowel sound. An orange. But the o in one is pronounced with a consonant sound “w”. So we need to use a. A one-off event. Got it?

The same thing happens with consonants that are silent or they’re pronounced as vowel sounds.

Like in hour where the h is silent. The first sound in hour is a vowel sound so we say an hour.

Now if you compare that to hippopotamus. Well the h is not silent. A hippopotamus. We hear that “h” sound.

We’ve talked about how articles are used before nouns. Well, sometimes we use other words in front of a noun, like this adjective. The articles that you choose, relate to the word that comes directly after it in a sentence. So we say an hour but a happy hour.

An umbrella, but a wet umbrella. Does that make sense? If you’re not sure you can always use a good dictionary to tell you how a word is pronounced correctly, whether or not the first sound is a consonant or a vowel sound.

Every time that you learn a new noun in English, when you learn it for the first time, always write it down with the correct article straight away. Learn the article together with the noun and that way you will never need to think about: which article should I be using?

And since we’re talking about pronunciation, in naturally spoken English we pronounce this as /ʌ/ or /ə/ not /eɪ/ and we say /ən/ not /æn/.

A cat. Not /eɪ/ cat. An apple. Not /æn/ apple.

So now let’s get stuck into the juicy stuff. The rules. When do we use these articles?

Rule #1

Use the indefinite article with singular countable nouns. Write this down!

In many languages, the indefinite article is actually just the number one. There is one book on the table. In English it is much more common and more natural to use a or an instead of one. Sure one is used, but generally, it’s used to emphasise that something is singular and not plural.

If you’re not sure whether or not to use the indefinite article, it can be really helpful to think about it by replacing a or an with the number one. A book. one book. It’s the same thing.

But if the noun is plural or it’s an uncountable noun, we can’t use it with the number one, can we? So we also can’t use it with an indefinite article.

Okay, I’m going to put up a list of nouns and I want you to see if you can guess which ones take a or an as their article.

  • A cat.
  • A strawberry.
  • An olive.

Children and friends are plural nouns so we can’t use a singular a or an and milk is uncountable so we also can’t use a or an.

We only use a or an with singular countable nouns. Got it?

Rule #2

Use the indefinite article to introduce something for the first time. To show you what I mean here we’re going to read a little story together. It’s very quick.

Notice that each time we introduce a new noun into the story we use the indefinite article a or an, but the next time we refer to the same noun we use the definite article the.

The indefinite article helps us to talk generally about a noun. A woman is one of many it could be any one of them, there are many women on the planet. The woman helps us to be specific about which woman we’re talking about.

Sometimes it’s already clear or it’s obvious which noun we’re referring to. So we can actually introduce a noun for the first time using the.

  • Oh the doorbell’s ringing. Did you hear it?

Sure somewhere in the world right now, in this moment, a doorbell is probably ringing, but because I said the. We can assume that I mean my doorbell is ringing. My doorbell, in my house not any random doorbell.

The good news is that my next lesson here on YouTube will be all about the. So make sure you’re subscribing and that you pay attention to the next lesson that I release. It’s gonna couple with this one nicely and give you a complete overview of articles in English.

Rule #3

We use a or an when describing something that is not specific.

I’ve got a little tip to help you here, to help you understand this rule. If you can replace a or an with any you’re not being specific.

So let’s say you walk into a bakery and  you say:

  • I’d like a piece of cake please.

Well you know it’s a bakery and it’s the morning. There’s a whole cake there, and let’s say there are eight or there’s ten pieces of cake there. You haven’t said which exact piece of cake you want.

You said “I’ll have a piece of cake”. I’ll have any piece of cake. It’s not important which particular piece it is as long as I get a piece of cake.

If there was more than one type of cake you might want to specify what type of cake you want. A piece of chocolate cake or a piece of carrot cake, right?

I’ve got another example for you:

  • We found a key on the ground.

So it’s a random key. The type of key is not clear. There was just any old key on the ground. But you compare that with the car key was on the ground or the house key was on the ground or my keys were on the ground.

In all of these examples, I talked about a specific type of key and in that case, we can’t replace the or my with any. Alright? Because we’re being specific.

Rule #4

Use a or an with jobs and job titles.

Now this one might be a little obvious to you but I want to highlight it because not every language uses articles in this same way.

I’m particularly thinking about my German students but who else uses articles like this? Do you use articles with jobs in your native language? Let me know down in the comments because I think it’s probably way more than I realise!

In English, when we want to describe what someone does for a living,  we use a or an with the job title.

  • I’m a teacher.
  • He’s an engineer.
  • Lucy’s a scientist.
  • Daniel’s a nurse.

Why do we need these articles? Because there are millions of teachers and scientists and nurses all over the world.

Lucy is just one of many scientists. So unless you’re describing a specific job that is unique to one person, then we use a or an as the job title. The exception to this rule is when there is only one of this role so in that case, we would use the.

Elizabeth is the Queen of England, that’s because there is only one Queen of England.

There is only one President of the United States. So when an American says “The President” you can assume that they’re talking about the only guy in their country that has that job and hopefully one day soon it will be a woman who has that job.

Common Mistakes

There is one mistake that I often hear my students making with indefinite articles and I wonder if you make this same mistake.

He’s busy man. She’s intelligent woman. That’s very expensive car.

Do you know what’s wrong with these sentences? Sometimes where there is an adjective before the noun, it’s easy to forget about the article. But in English this is wrong. We don’t use adjectives instead of articles. We use them in addition to articles. So they come between the article and the noun.

  • He’s a busy man.
  • She’s an intelligent woman.
  • That’s a very expensive car.

Okay, so here’s the thing. Omitting this article is not going to stop someone from understanding you but it will be noticeable.

I know that you want to sound accurate and natural in English, right? These tiny little words are really important and it’s a good thing to realise where your mistakes are, so that you can fix them. So that you can improve and you can feel confident that you’re speaking beautiful accurate English every time.

Practice

On that note, I’ve prepared a little practice quiz for you. Are you ready?

There are four questions. Each question refers to one of the rules that we’ve just learned in this lesson. You’ll see a sentence and you’ll need to complete it by adding the correct article, a, an or even the and sometimes no article is necessary.

1. On the table there were ___ spoons, a bowl, ___ fruit and a tub of ice cream.

On the table, there were spoons. That’s a plural noun so no article.

Bowl, that’s a singular countable noun, starting with the consonant sound so we need to use a. A bowl.

Fruit is an uncountable noun so again no article and tub of ice cream, well that’s a singular countable noun so we use a. A tub of ice cream.

2. Last week I saw ___ accident. ___ accident happened when ___ man drove through ___ red light.

When we introduce a noun for the first time, we use a or an.

So we say an accident. A man. A red light.

But after that, we use the definite article. The accident.

We use a red light because we’re telling this story to someone a week later, someone who didn’t see the accident so they don’t know which red light the man drove through.

We have to introduce it as a and if we mention it again in the story we can use the.

3. I went to the supermarket and bought ___ light bulb.

In this question, we’re talking about any light bulb, not one specific light bulb.

There were ten and I bought one of them. It wasn’t important which one I bought.

4. Ruby is ___ pilot and Jesse is ___ astronaut.

Here we’re describing job titles. So we use a and an. We use a with a consonant sound, Ruby is a pilot. An with a vowel sound: Jesse is an astronaut.


Alright! You made it through to the end of the lesson! Well done. You’re a very good student!

I hope that you feel really good about using the indefinite article now and that you’ve learned something new, something that you can put into practice.

If you’ve got a question or you just want to say hello, drop me a comment down below the video. Make sure you subscribe to the channel, turn on notifications so that you find out when the next video is released.

Remember that video is going to be all about the definite article the. It’s going to be part 2 to this one. So definitely come and check that one out and if you want to keep going right now I’ve got this lesson for you. It’s a practice speaking with me lesson, an imitation lesson where you’ll get to follow along and imitate me as I’m speaking.

Great practice with articles out loud in spoken natural English. I’ll see you in there.

Links mentioned in the video

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