5 SOME MORE ABOUT a & an
We will begin by reminding ourselves of some rules that we should already know with a and an, and then begin to add some that perhaps you did not know, or did not realize.
We use a and an (the indefinite articles) when we talk about something for the first time, or when there is only one (of possibly many) of the thing or item that we are talking about. But also…
a or an are used to talk about a group of something, or a unit of something, even if it is countable or uncountable:
An army of ants. A collection of stamps. A loaf of bread. A bar of chocolate. A bottle of water, etc.
In fact, a nice little rule to remember here is that if the noun phrase contains the preposition of, it will take the indefinite article.
a or an can be used if we are not sure of something or even someone:
Excuse me, is that a musical instrument? (I can see this object, it looks like a musical instrument, but I am not sure).
There is a Mr. John Smith on the telephone, would you like to talk to him? (There are many John Smiths in the world, and one of them would like to talk to the listener.)
Could I have a beer? We would usually say a glass of beer or a bottle of beer, but in spoken English it is common to say ‘a beer’ to mean a glass of, or a bottle of beer, and depending on where the person is speaking: for example, in a bar, ‘a beer’ clearly means ‘a glass or a bottle of beer to drink’.
I’d love an orange. (Depending on the context, this could mean either an individual fruit or a drink)
When we want to describe a particular instance, we can say:
I dream of a future where everyone lives together happily.
Edwards has a past that goes back to the Second World War.
a/an can be used to describe someone’s job:
She’s an engineer. I want to be an astronaut when I grow up. My sister’s a doctor.
a/an are also used to describe someone’s qualities, particularly when we compare them to someone we know, but adding the indefinite article is not always necessary:
He’s very good at football; he could be (a) Lionel Messi in the making!
Note that there is an important difference between little/a little, and few/a few.
If we say, for example, I have a little time to help you, this suggests a positive idea. It means the person has time available to help the listener.
If the speaker says I have little time to help you (without ‘a’), then this suggests a negative idea, and that the speaker has little or no time available for the listener.
Few/a few works in a similar way:
I’ve got a few ideas so we should be able to do a good job. (Positive: I’ve got some ideas.)
I’m afraid I’ve got few ideas on the best way to finish this job (without ‘a’). (Negative: I have very nearly no ideas at all.)
I) A QUICK CHECK (8 minutes)
Can you complete the following sentences with a, an or zero article?
1. Mr. Smith has ___ criminal history that would make you really scared of him.
2. If you keep driving, you should find ___ beach that you will enjoy.
3. Have you got ____ shampoo that does not make eyes sting?
4. There was ______ Jeremy Clarkson in my school, but I’m sure it’s not the same person.
5. Schools these days are not very good at teaching _____ grammar.
6. Will there ever be ____ time when there is no more oil?
7. I’m hungry. I would like _____ ice cream.
1. Mr. Smith has a criminal history, one of perhaps many different histories, and so do many other people. There are many criminal histories...
2. There are many possible beaches which could be found if the listener keeps driving, so he should find a beach.
3. From the context, the speaker is clearly asking about a bottle of shampoo, one of perhaps many different kinds, so he is asking for a shampoo. It is not necessary to add 'bottle of' because it is clear from the context what the speaker is talking about.
4. There are perhaps many other Jeremy Clarksons in the world, although there is one that is certainly more famous than the others. It was probably not the same man that the speaker was talking about, so he would say a Jeremy Clarkson in my school.
5. Grammar in general is an uncountable noun, so we do not use a/an. However, if we are talking about a book about grammar, then this kind of book would be called a grammar.
6. The speaker is thinking about a particular instance in the future, so they are referring to 'a time in the future'.
7. Ice cream is uncountable, and like the beer example, this depends on where the situation is. If the speaker is going into a cafe or shop to get something nice and cold (perhaps because it is the hot weather, or they just like the idea of eating one of these), then they just ask for an ice cream. It is then usually served up in a wafer which is usually round and which we call a cone. Of course, they may be asked how much they would like, particularly if it is served in 'scoops' (a special spoon used to serve a portion of ice cream): Could I have a scoop/two scoops please? Of course, it could be served in a dish / bowl / plate, etc., so this is a dish/bowl/plate of ice cream. But if they are just asking about ice cream in general (what it is being put into is not important or is clear from the context), then we can use the zero article, i.e., nothing at all.
So that just about covers everything to do with a and an. Now prepare for quite a lot to understand about the.
Again, just stop for a moment, read through this unit again, and make sure you understand it.
And then continue…