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Category : Common Mistakes

“A” versus “An”

“A” and “an” are indefinite articles used in the English language, whereas “the” is the only definite article used in the English language. To learn about proper overall article usage, see the blog post entitled Articles in English: “The,” “A,” and “An.”

As a brief recap of indefinite article use in English, you use “a” or “an” with a noun when referring to a member of a group or class. However, many people are slightly confused about when to use “a” and when to use “an.” An often repeated guideline is to use “a” when the word that follows starts with a consonant and to use “an” when word that follows starts with a vowel. Examples include “a book,” “an old book,” “an elephant,” and “a gray elephant.” Although this guideline will help you in most instances, it is not entirely true and will cause problems in some unique situations.

The actual rule governing the use of “a” versus “an” is related to the sound made by the first letter in the following word. More specifically, if the first letter of the following word makes a consonant sound, you should use “a;” in contrast, if the first letter of the following word is silent and/or makes a vowel sound, you should use “an.” This rule clearly still works for our previous examples, i.e., “a book” and “an elephant.” In addition, it also helps to clarify more difficult situations.

For example, let’s consider the word “hour.” It starts with an “h,” which is a consonant. However, the “h” in “hour” is silent; therefore, the first sound from this word is a vowel sound. Hence, a grammatically correct sentence would refer to “an hour,” not “a hour.” Yet, in other “h” words, the “h” or consonant sound is made, thereby requiring the use of “a.” Examples include “a history book” and “a hotdog.”

Also consider words starting with “u.” Some such words make a “y” or consonant sound (e.g., unicorn, unique, and ukulele); in such instances, you should use the article “a” (e.g., a unicorn, a unique store, and a ukulele). Others make a “u” vowel sound (e.g., umbrella, ugly, and uprising); in such instances, you should use the article “an” (e.g., an umbrella, an ugly dog, and an uprising).

Therefore, when you question whether you should use “a” or “an” in your writing endeavors, look at the word immediately following the article. Better yet, say the word aloud. If this word starts with a consonant sound, use “a.” If it starts with a vowel sound, use “an.”

To “the” or not to “the”

A mistake I see often is the use of “the” where none is needed – or where a definite article is optional. Which raises the question: to “the” or not to “the”? Below, examples of both situations:

  • Scholars of feminism have argued that the modern woman faces a dilemma when trying to explore her sexuality and, at the same time, break with “traditional” notions of women as sexualized beings.
  • Scholars of feminism have argued that modern women face a dilemma when trying to explore their sexuality and, at the same time, break with “traditional” notions of women as sexualized beings.

The previous sentences are functionally equivalent. Neither is more correct than the other. The primary difference is that “the modern woman” refers to an abstract concept. Here, “the modern woman” represents all women living in modern society – and, therefore, also faces the challenges that modern women face. In the second sentence, “modern women” refers, generally, to all women living in modern society. This phrase does not suggest the existence of a prototypical modern woman (as “the modern woman” does). However, it does imply that many women in modern society share certain characteristics (of which the sentence goes on to name one – the difficulty of exploring sexuality while trying to break with notions of women as sexualized beings).

Note that “the modern women” is not correct in this context. The addition of the definite article “the” (to “modern women”) implies a specific group of modern women – say, Modern Woman A, Modern Woman B, and Modern Woman C. It does not suggest the existence of a prototypical modern woman, like “the modern woman”, because it uses the singular – “women”. The phrase “the modern women” would be correct in an instance such as the following:

  • Carol Culliver, movie critic for The Women’s Magazine, contends that the modern women depicted in the movie Sex and the City set an ambiguous moral example for young ladies today.

Consider this example, too:

  • When American incomes rose after the Second World War, American citizens started buying more goods and experienced higher standards of living.
  • When the American incomes rose after the Second World War, the American citizens started buying more goods and experienced higher standards of living.

“The American incomes” and “the American citizens” imply a specific set of American incomes and a specific set of American citizens. This makes the use of the definite article “the” inappropriate because the sentence refers, generally, to a broad phenomenon (increasing incomes and standards of living after World War II). Compare the use of “the” in the previous example with its use in the following example:

  • The American citizens who had been living in the apartments at Baab al Shebaab and Al Farouk Streets decided to move when their landlord upped their rent to an unreasonable rate.

Here, “the American citizens” are a handful of specific citizens – say, Citizen A, Citizen B, and Citizen C – who live in a specific place.

  • The American incomes listed in the registry of global incomes for the period 1963-1968 shed new light on Wei-li’s study of global inequity.

Here, “the American incomes” refers to a specific set of figures – say, Figure A, Figure B, and Figure C – that are found in a specific place (a registry of global incomes for the period 1963-1968).

One more example:

  • At the end of the nineteenth century, American manufacturers took advantage of new technologies to industrialize production. In so doing, the manufacturers aimed to reduce costs.

There are two points to be made here: First, it isn’t necessary to use “the manufacturers” in the second sentence; this is redundant. It is better to use “they”. Second, even if we were to repeat the word “manufacturers” (i.e. say “In so doing, the manufacturers aimed …”), we would do so without the definite article “the”. “The manufacturers” implies a specific group – as in, Manufacturer A, Manufacturer B, and Manufacturer C. Note that the type of specific group suggested by this phrase is not the same as the specific group suggested by the phrase “American manufacturers”. While “American manufacturers” is specific in that “manufacturers” is denoted as “American”, it is not as specific as “the manufacturers”. Hence, a better way of phrasing the above example would be:

  • At the end of the nineteenth century, American manufacturers took advantage of new technologies to industrialize production. In so doing, they aimed to reduce costs.

Don’t Slip up with Possessive Pronouns

Be careful not to use plural verb tenses and plural possessive pronouns with singular nouns. This can be tricky, especially when the nouns in question refer to entities (e.g. companies, governments) that contain a lot of people. You might think that because the people define the entities (there would be no governments or companies without their employees) that the entities should be used with plural verbs and pronouns. But watch out!

  • Right: The government’s attitude toward its people was typically positive.
  • Wrong: The government’s attitude toward their people was typically positive.

“The government” is an entity (a “thing”) that requires singular verb forms and singular possessive pronouns. Why not plural verbs or pronouns? Because a government may have many employees, ministers, etc., but it is seen as containing these people. Such people, in essence, “belong” to their governments, much as athletes “belong” to sports teams. As a group, they are defined by their common membership in a single institution, and this institution’s singular identity takes precedent over the individual identities of its members.

Several other examples:

  • Right: The team loses every home game it plays.
  • Wrong: The team lose every home game they play.
  • Right: If the company goes bankrupt, it will have no option but to vacate the premises and auction off its equipment.
  • Wrong: If the company goes bankrupt, they will have no option but to vacate the premises and auction off their equipment.
  • Right: The hospital staff is composed of a set of physicians and nurses.
  • Wrong: The hospital staff are composed of a set of physicians and nurses.

In the latter example, we’re speaking of “hospital staff” as a single entity – a “body” (or group) of people that includes physicians and nurses. Single entities require verbs in singular tenses. The phrasing “hospital staff are” is incorrect because “are” is the present plural form of the verb “to be”.

BUT

  • Right: Hospital staff are required to wear uniforms at all times.
  • Wrong: Hospital staff is required to wear uniforms at all times.

Here, it wouldn’t make sense to say “hospital staff is required to wear uniforms.” Were we use to this phraseology, we would be suggesting that the group “hospital staff”, as a whole and as an abstract, single entity, is required to wear uniforms. “Hospital staff are required” implies individual hospital staff members. While individual members of a group may wear uniforms, the group itself (which is abstract and unable to put on clothes) cannot.

Another way to think about the difference: The words “the office” or “our office” may refer to a group of employees who share a common workplace and, together, constitute an entity known as “the office”. For instance, “Our office holds an annual holiday party.” Note that “our office” is used with a singular form of the verb “to hold”. (“Holds” is the same form of “to hold” that would be used with the singular pronouns “he”, “she”, or “it”.) Also consider, “Our office goes out to lunch every Tuesday.” It would not be correct to say, “Our office hold an annual party” or “Our office go out to lunch every Tuesday.” Here, “hold” and “go” (plural forms of the verbs “to hold” and “to go”, respectively) do not “match” the singular noun “our office”. The mismatch holds, even though “our office” consists of multiple people.