Answers to Questions About Articles

By Mark Nichol

1. I found the follow information about the indefinite article a in The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary: “used before uncountable nouns when these have an adjective in front of them, or phrase following them. For example, “a good knowledge of French”; “a sadness that won’t go away.”

I don’t understand the information. The dictionary says that the a is used before uncountable nouns when these have an adjective in front of them. But, as far as I know, the indefinite article a cannot be used in front of uncountable nouns. Does the information mean that we can always use the indefinite article a in front of uncountable nouns that have an adjective in front of them? Is it a rule?

Mass, or noncount, nouns can be preceded by the indefinite article a when they are modified by a preceding adjective or a subsequent phrase: For example, though you would refer to bravery as courage, not “a courage,” you can write of “an uncommon courage” and “a courage like no other.” However, the passage from the resource you mentioned refers only to the possibility of the former type of usage, not to its ubiquity; it is rare.

2. Something I would like some clarification on is the use of a or an before the word holistic. I have been taught an, but this doesn’t seem to make sense to me, as there are many instances when a word beginning with h is preceded by a rather than an. Are you able to shed some light on this?

Use a or an before a word that begins with the letter h depending on whether the h is pronounced: “a historic occasion,” but “an honest mistake.”

3. I don’t know what to do with the names of institutions when they call themselves a name with the in the title — for example, “the Open Door.” In the middle of a sentence, do you have to capitalize the? Would you say, “We met at The Open Door”?

The direct article should be lowercase even when it is integral to an entity’s name (as in “the American Automobile Association,” when it would not be referred to, minus the, as “American Automobile Association”), but many entities insist on capitalizing it as part of a branding identity. (And it’s best to do so for indirect articles, as in, for example, the name of a community center called A Place for Teens.)

If you work for the Open Door — or it’s giving your organization money or other consideration — and management at the Open Door wants the name treated as “The Open Door,” treat it as “The Open Door.” Otherwise, style it “the Open Door.”

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9 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Articles”

  • KevinT

    When using the indefinite articles a/an, I think it’s easier to talk about their use when speaking in more general (a.k.a. indefinite) terms. For example, “a murder of crows” might refer to a discussion in which people talk about the behavior of some non-specific bunch of birds that inhabits the southern region of the United States. (Also, you can still use a/an with “a lamp” or “an hour of time”, which are not collective nouns and may still be countable, but instead refer to a generalized/indefinite noun.)

    Uncountable nouns are often used in wordy “government speak” articles or fictional writing. It might be a good idea to reconsider their use in properly written non-fiction. For instance:

    1. When talking about “an uncommon courage” when displayed by a valiant fireman, it might be more readable and informative to say “the fireman showed great courage when he saved the cat from a burning building”, and then allow the reader to decide whether the courage was uncommon or not.

    2. If referring to “a sadness that won’t go away”, talk about the grieving widow who, to this day, cries on the anniversary of her husband after his passing 20 years ago.

    3. If you have “a good knowledge of French”, it might mean that you know French well enough to hold a short conversation (or ask where the bathroom is located in Paris). If you’re seeking candidates for a translator position, perhaps they should have five or more years of experience speaking the French language on the job.

  • Nelson Carter

    Mark:
    Assuming the first sentence of this article is an accurate quote, “I found the follow information about the indefinite article . . . “, I’m really surprised you didn’t quietly correct it.

  • Mary

    Thanks for these, Mark, as always. What about The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal? And when the names are shortened to the Times and the Journal? My preference has been to use initial caps on the articles — and to italicize the articles along with the titles — if I’m using the complete name of a newspaper. My basis for this is it’s what’s on the masthead. If I use the shortened version I don’t uppercase the articles or set them in itals. If this is wrong I won’t like it, but I’ll consider changing the practice.

  • Mark Nichol

    Nelson:

    I didn’t correct it, because I didn’t notice it.

  • Mark Nichol

    Mary:

    Here’s an excerpt from a previous post of mine that answers the first part of your query:

    “Do not capitalize or italicize the before a publication name, whether or not it is part of the title. Various publications differ in self-identification — for example, the New York Times bills itself as The New York Times, while the Los Angeles Times omits the article — and this rule is designed to save writers the trouble of having to check individual publications for specific usage.

    As for treatment of the short form of a periodical’s title, I recommend consistency.

  • Mary

    Thanks, Mark! That’s got to be a first, a rule designed to save writers trouble….

  • venqax

    Thanks. This is a knowledge I am glad to have. I hope it is a, not an, one that will not going away!

  • Veena

    Is it correct to say “The elephant is a friendly animal.” or “An elephant is a friendly animal.”? I tend to think it is the former, but I have read both usages and wanted some clarity…

    Thanks

  • Holly

    I frequently find answers to grammar issues on your site. I currently have an issue with this sentence:

    “All youth are enrolled in the The Buck Club.”

    The club is named “The Buck Club” and the client wants to add the extra “the” before it. I thought there was a rule about dropping it or it being implied when a title starts with the word “The”?

    Any help would be great!

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