The Articles (2)
Now we come to the main business in hand. When do we use ‘a’ and ‘an’, when do we use ‘the’ and when do we simply not use either of them? Just sit back and relax and I will try to explain.
‘A’ (an) is in a way a sort of very general ‘one’. By that I mean the number one. It’s of course not as exact as that. We go into a shop and say we would like ‘one of those cakes’. That’s clear to the shopkeeper that we don’t want two but we want just one of those cakes to which we are now pointing. If we tell our shop keeper that we want to buy ‘a cake’, this is more general but at least he knows that we want a cake and not a tart or a loaf of bread. You can say that you had a bowl of cereal for your breakfast and an egg. In both cases we don’t know much about the cereal or the egg but we do know that it was not two bowls or two eggs. If we said we had one bowl of cereal and one egg for breakfast, we are actually being more precise. We would be saying this perhaps to a dietician, who wants to know exactly how much we really eat for breakfast. This is essentially the distinction between ‘one’ and ‘a’ – not forgetting its great companion, ‘an’.
What we have to remember is that once we start to use ‘a’, the following noun is going to be a countable one (a word that we can use in the plural often by adding the letter’s’) but because ‘a’ represents singularity, the following noun is also singular. The other thing to remember is that ‘a something/a someone’ is of no particular importance. We could say: ‘a horse is a wonderful animal’. That’s a very general statement. You can take it or leave it. How about this? – I’d like a cup of tea – I need a taxi to pick me up at the railway station. I don’t really mind whether the tea is weak or strong and I couldn’t care less how big the taxi is. There are two reasons for my wants: I’m thirsty and secondly I want to go home by car.
We again say ‘a’ when we’re using a countable noun that is used as a representative or an example of a class or a group of things or people. Look at these: A book is something you read. A newspaper is something you can buy at a newsagent. An apple is a fruit that grows on trees. Perhaps you come across a word that you’ve never seen before and you want to ask someone what it means. Here is one way of asking: What is a cucumber? I don’t know this word. The answer could be is that it is a vegetable that you can cut up and use in a salad. Can I issue a word of warning? I’ve given the simple question form: What is a cucumber? Remember that when you use the verb ‘mean’, you have to use the interrogative form and ask: What does **** mean? That’s the English teacher coming out in me probably because I have seen so many wrong ways of asking that question, which of course I won’t talk about here.
Let me next explain the expression ‘noun complement’. In a traditional sentence as everyone knows, we usually find a subject and a verb and an object but not all verbs are capable of employing an object. A perfect example of this type of verb is the verb ‘be’ This is another use of ‘a’. Charlie is a pedant. Do you know this word ‘pedant’? It describes someone who is very particular about the use of words and often gets quite angry when people use a word the wrong way – at least according to the grammar books he reads every night before he goes to sleep. We also use ‘a’ with names of jobs and professions: She’s an electrician. He’s become a doctor. She’s become an actress. These words- pedant/electrician/doctor/actress are all examples of noun complements.
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