Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Weekly G-Spot 1: Unraveling A and An

I decided to start a series of posts in the English vein. Each week, I am introducing the "weekly G-Spot" That is Grammar Spot (got you to look though didn't it). Partly as an exercise to keep myself fresh in it and partly as a help to some of my more dilligent students who are reading my blog. For the expatriate crowd: don't be afraid to read the G-Spot because there is a good chance you will learn something about English you might not have known otherwise. Or a way to explain something to someone that you didn't think of before. I'll try to keep in interesting for all. Please remember that I am NOT a grammarian and do not claim to know everything about the English language so take this information for what it is worth to you. Also, if you find that you would like to see something in particular focused on here, please leave me a comment and I will try to get to it when I can.
Cheers, fencerider.

This week's G-Spot: Unraveling A and An
Probably one of the most elusive aspects of English for anyone seeking to learn it as a second language is the proper use of 'a' and 'an' (indefinite articles). Here are the basic rules

1. Use a or an the first time you mention a person or thing in a conversation.

2. After you have mentioned it once, it becomes known to the interlocutor, you can then begin using 'the' to refer to the same person or thing.
A war is being fought in Iraq. The war had dragged on for several years.

3. They may only be used with singular countable nouns.
4. If you use an adjective with the person or thing, place the indefinite article before the adjective(s).
I drive an ugly, old, beat up Carnival.
5. If a thing is not singular (that is, if it is non-countable) then you should NOT use any article.
My favorite food is an Italian food.

What do 'a' and 'an' mean?
There are two ways I use to explain it. First, it is called an 'indefinite article.' Since 'indefinite' means 'not sure' we can say that it is used with something that the listener does not know about (until it is mentioned). Second, I find an easy way to explain the meaning of the indefinite article in context is 'one of many.' That is, in the universe there are many of this particular item, I am speaking (or writing) of only one of them.

When to use 'a' or 'an'?
If the following word's first sound is a consonant...use 'a'. If the following words first sound is a vowel...use 'an.' An important note her is that the letter is not as important as the sound as evidenced by words like 'uniform' which begins with a vowel but the sound of that vowel is /yu/ and the presence of the 'y' sound makes it a consonant (a uniform). The same applies for the use of an article in front of a silent letter like 'h' in 'honest' (an honest man).

1. a is also sometimes used to mean 'one' when used with numbers, fractions or measurments.
Then, add a half teaspoon of molasses.

Here's a link to a quiz on indefinite articles from the Internet TESL Journal

1 comment:

ZenKimchi said...

I remember this from a lecture series on the history of the English language.

Like "ein" in German, "one" used to be "an" in English. After the Norman invasion, the distinction was made between the number and the article by putting the /w/ sound at the beginning of the number.

The German language never made such a change, and its usage is more closely aligned with old English.