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The indefinite article

Articles are special adjectives, like "A", "An", and "The". But when do you choose "A", and when do you choose "An"? Let's find out.  Created by David Rheinstrom.

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Video transcript

- Hello Grammarians, we've talked a little about the difference between these special adjectives 'a,' and 'an,' and 'the,' also known as the articles. I want to go a little deeper. Now we know that 'the' is the definite article and 'a,' or 'an is the indefinite. If you're being non-specific in language, you'd use an indefinite article, as in may I have an orange, if you want to talk about one orange in particular, you'd use the definite article: may I have the orange. Now into this framework, I'd like to introduce a complication into that indefinite article, something to chew on, something to think about. You'll notice I said the indefinite article is 'a' or 'an,' well what's with that or? We use 'a' and when do we use 'an'? And the answer to that question comes down to one thing and one thing only. The next sound to come out of your mouth. Let us take, for example, two apes, the orangutan and the bonobo. Orangutan starts with 'o,' bonobo starts with 'b.' Marvelous great apes, cousins to humans, treat them with love and respect. When you say a word that begins with a consonant, which is to say any sound that you make when your lips or your teeth or your tongue are touching, you say 'a.' A bonobo. The 'b' sound requires my lips to come together and then pop apart. Ba, ba. When you say a word that begins with a vowel sound, which is any sound that you make with an open mouth and no teeth, lips, toungey business, you say 'an.' An orangutan. Orangutan starts with an 'o' sound: oh, ah, ee, ahh, little vocal warmup. So you can see how this is going to break down. Whatever sound comes after the indefinite article is going to determine the shape the indefinite article takes. A pencil, an open door, a zebra, an extra pudding cup, a sailboat, an NBA player, a unicorn, wait, whoa, hold up. Do you notice something weird about those last two examples? NBA player, well that begins with 'n' doesn't it? And unicorn begins with 'u,' so why isn't it a NBA player and an unicorn, because, and this is the crucial, complicated, confusing part, it's not about the letter that the word begins with in spelling, it's about the sound that letter makes. So NBA doesn't begin with the 'nuh' sound, it's not nuh-BA, it's Eh, Ehn-BA. And unicorn doesn't begin with an 'uh' or an 'ohh' sound, it begins with 'yuh,' yuh-icorn. It's not about the letter, it's about the sound. 'Eh' in NBA is a vowel sound, so it's an NBA player. And 'yuh' in unicorn is a consonant sound. Notice how you lift your tongue as you practice the difference between un-icorn and une-icorn. - Ohh, yu, ohh, yu, so it's a consonant sound. It's a unicorn. Same deal with words to begin with silent 'h,' like herb, or heirloom, or hour. An hour had passed, ow, I'm going to start an herb garden, er, that cuckoo clock is an heirloom, air. Why does this happen? What's the difference between 'a' and 'an?' The 'nuh' sound in 'an' helps separate sounds. Here, listen to this incorrect example: for my snack today, I ate a apple. Sounds weird, right? One right after the other, ah, ah. And now listen to this: for my snack today, I ate an apple. The 'nuh' in 'an' is ind of like a springboard from one vowel sound into the next. An-napel. And that's what I want you to take away from this lesson, because it can be very confusing and, well, indefinite. But think about the sound that the word makes, not the letter that it begins with. An orangutan, a bonobo, an NBA player, a unicorn, a you can learn anything, David out.