One vs. A/An in English

One vs a an in English

A common source of confusion for some English learners is the use of the numeral one vs. the indefinite article a or an. The tendency is to use one rather than a or an, which sounds unnatural in English.

The reality is that native English speakers don’t use one much, even when they refer to a number. When there is just one thing to count they basically ignore the numbers and simply use the indefinite article a or an, for example:

“I’ll have a pint of Guiness, a gin and tonic and two Cokes, please.” (notice that for Cokes the number was used – two – since the person wanted more than one)

“He was away for a week.”
“She’ll be back in a minute.”
“We’re closing the office for a day.”

If you want to make yourself clear, and emphasize a single item, use the numeral one, as in:

“He was away for one week and the whole system collapsed without him.”
“She estimated around one thousand people turned up to the event, up 25% from last year.”

But the rest of the time, to sound really authentic in English, you can drop one in favor of a or an.

Some definitions and rules

A and an are called indefinite articles because they do not say anything specific about the words that follow. For example, think about the sentences, “I need a horse.” or “I’m eating an apple.” You’ll take any horse—just a horse will do. You are eating any apple. But if you say, “I need the horse,” or “I’m eating the apple” then you want a specific horse and you are eating a specific apple. That’s why the is called a definite article—you want something definite.

The rule is that you use a before words that start with a consonant sound and an before words that start with a vowel sound. For example:

“I have a bag.” (bag starts with consonant – b)

“I eat an egg every day.” (egg starts with vowel – e)

The letter “h” makes a vowel sound in some words such as an hour (“hour” starts with an “o” sound), and a consonant sound in other words, such as a historic monument (“historic” starts with a “h” sound).

One is called a numeral and it is used to count and to refer to a single item. For example:

“This is how you count to ten: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.”

“I will buy just one bread for us.”

Quiz

Choose the correct option for each sentence below:

1. You’re in a sandwich shop. You say, ”Can I have __ sandwich please?”
  •  a
  •  one
2. The sales assistant could reply, ”Which __ would you like?”
  •  one
  •  an
3. My sister has been studying for __ hour.
  •  a
  •  an
4. He has __ university degree in Economics.
  •  a
  •  one
5. Do you have __ degree?
  •  a
  •  an
6. If you say, ”I’ve got one interesting book about food” I think:
  •  you only have one interesting book about food (all the others are boring)
  •  you have a book about food which is interesting (and maybe you have other interesting books as well)
7. Your friend suggests going to the cinema tonight. You like that idea and say ”It’s __ good idea.”
  •  a
  •  one
8. My brother has __ nice car.
  •  a
  •  one
9. He’s saving for a new car. In fact, he’s saved exactly __ thousand dollars.
  •  a
  •  one
10. She’s got about __ hundred friends on Facebook.
  •  a
  •  one

Answers

  1. a, 2. one, 3. an, 4. a, 5. a, 6. you only have one interesting book about food (all the others are boring), 7. a, 8. a, 9. one, 10. a

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