Friday, March 28, 2008

I Indefinitely Get It

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

It’s more than likely that at one time or another you’ve heard that old philosophical question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” So now I ask you, which came first, a or an? Here’s about as basic an element of English as you can get, and yet I can’t figure out the answer to that question. I know, I know; people usually teach that the indefinite article is a and that it becomes an if the noun that follows begins with a vowel sound. Well, can’t the reverse be possible? Can’t it be that the indefinite article is an and that it becomes a if the noun that follows begins with a consonant sound? I wonder . . .

I also wonder about the term “the indefinite article.” I don’t think that’s right. I think it should be “the indefinite articles.” I don’t know about you, but I see two articles, an and a. Why do grammarians and teachers keep saying there’s only one indefinite article? I don’t get it.

Well, this has really bothered me from time to time, so now with all this modern technology and the “information highway” that we call the Web, I figured it might be fun to google an and a (I just love this new verb!) and see what I could come up with as far as whether or not there’s one indefinite article or two. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. What did I find? There are grammarians who say there are three indefinite articles! Not one, not two ― but three! (Am I being ambushed again?)

I found lots of hits on for “English indefinite article” (3,010) and more hits than I had expected for “English indefinite articles” (659), and among the links for the latter, I came across grammarians who consider some as an indefinite article, the plural equivalent of an and a. Now I’ve always considered that to be a determiner, and one link actually says that most people view it that way, but that didn’t stop the author from saying that he still feels some should be categorized as an indefinite article since it represents the plural form of an and a as in I have an onion. / I have some onions. I think using some in this sentence is more natural sounding than simply saying I have onions. Gee, I can see his point about considering some as an indefinite article. Can you?

But I’ve wondered about something else as well: How do we pronounce a? For me there’s only one pronunciation, the schwa sound [Ə], the same sound as the initial vowel in applaud. But then I know there are people who say [e] as in aim. Do they always say [e], or do they waffle between [Ə] and [e]? There may be times when some people say [e] with a noun just to emphasize it for one reason or another, but I’m not one of them ― at least I don’t think I am. Are you? So how do we teach the pronunciation of a to our students? Thank goodness we don’t have this conundrum with an or some ― if you go along with considering some an indefinite article rather than a determiner.

And did you know that because native speakers got mixed up between a and an at some point in the history of English that they actually changed at least a couple of nouns accidentally? Here’s how those words would be today if that confusion hadn’t screwed them up:

A: Hey, Milt, are we on for the softball game this coming Saturday?
B: Well, I hope so, but we have to find somebody to be a numpire. Gus has the flu.

A: Chloe, you’re going to the supermarket later today, right?
B: Yes, that’s right. Do you need something?
A: Can you go to the housewares aisle and pick me up a napron?
B: Sure thing, Phyllis.

Yep, believe it or not, the original words were numpire and napron, not umpire and apron! Somewhere along the line, people attached the [n] to the wrong word through a phenomenon called juncture loss. How weird is that!

So what have I come away with after wondering about an and a and the chicken-vs.-egg question? I’ve come away with realizing more than ever how complex even the so-called simplest elements of a language can be. I’ve also come away with a greater appreciation for how interesting it is to delve into an item of the English language that I would otherwise have considered pretty banal. Banal? Not by a long shot! I don’t say that I accept the idea that we have three indefinite articles in English even though I can see that point of view. I may not completely be a traditionalist, but I do hold on to some traditions I find hard to break, like only thinking of an and a as the indefinite articles in English. And yes, I do feel we have two indefinite articles ― even though I’m not quite sure how to teach the pronunciation of one of them. What’s your take on all of this?


Comment from Colin Browne
March 3, 2012 at 9:10 am

“An” comes from the old word for “one”. That is what it means. “An” was always used until people (naturally?) dropped the double consonant sound and started using “a”. Also “any” derives from “an” as well.
Determiners include “a word, such as a number, article, personal pronoun, that determines (limits) the meaning of a noun phrase” (Collins Unabridged).
I think that an error has been made in the past when “an/a” was grouped with “the” and they were all called articles. They are really different types of adjective.
“The” can be grouped with the other “pointing” adjectives like “this’, “those”, “these” etc. These words are also used as pronouns, as was “the” in the past, as “the” is still used in some English dialects.

Comment from Richard Firsten
March 3, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Hi, Colin! Well, I only had to wait almost four years for somebody to comment on this piece. Wow! And I thank you very much for the very interesting details you’ve mentioned. I also agree with your points of view on this issue.

Great hearing from you, Colin. Thanks again!

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