GTE 1999 Minigrants: Adult Learning Center - ESL Program

The first question that fluent English speakers ask is, "Does the listener/reader know which noun I'm talking about?" This makes the noun definite, and should be used with the.

The second question is, "Is this indefinite noun plural?" If it is, the no noun marker will be used, and we showed this with the symbol~.

The third question is, "Is this singular, indefinite noun hard to count?" If it is, no noun marker should be used (~). If it is not a non-count noun, you go on to the FOURTH SIGNPOST.

The last question to ask is, "Does this indefinite, singular, non-count noun start with a consonant sound?" This will determine whether or not you will use a or an.

GUIDELINE I: The English vowels are a, e, i, o, and u. All the other 21 letters of the alphabet are consonants.

Indefinite, singular, non-count nouns that begin with a consonant should be used with a.

Indefinite, singular, non-count nouns that begin with a vowel sound should be used with an. If one or more adjectives come before the noun, the starting sound of the first adjective decides whether you use a or an.

I had an egg, a pancake and a piece of bacon for breakfast. I had a fresh egg, an applesauce pancake and an extra crispy piece of bacon for breakfast.

POTHOLE: The letter 'h' is silent in some words.

Here is a list of these words:

hour/hourly honest/ honesty/ honestly herb

heir/ heiress/ heirloomhonor/ honorary/ honorable/ honorarium

(Some people say 'an historic,' but this sounds stuffy to Americans.)

POTHOLE: The names of the letters of the alphabet themselves can trick you.

Use a with the names these letters: b, c, d, g, j, k, p, q, t, u, v, w, y and z.

Use an with the names these letters: a, e, f, h, i, l, m, n, o, r, s and x.

"How do you spell your first name?" "Cheryl: C-h-e-r-y-l." "Was that S-h-e-r-y-l-?" "No, the first letter is not an 's' (es). It's a 'c' (see)." "Oh, a 'c.' Thanks."

POTHOLE: 'One' sounds like 'wun.'

"I can't read this address. Is that a '5' or an '8''?

POTHOLE: 'Europe' starts with the 'y' sound. We got a Eurorail pass.

POTHOLE: Some words that start with 'u' begin with a 'y' sound, like 'you.'

ubiquitous unanimous unicorn unification

uniform union unique unit

unity universe university uranium

urine useless user usual

utensil uterus utility utopian

Intermediate level

GUIDELINE II: A and an are just different ways of saying 'one' in English, except in a way that does no call attention to the amount.

"Could I borrow a dollar, Dad?"

However, you can emphasize that you are talking about just one:

"Would you like a big or little piece of cake?" "A little one, please."

"I've had only one student who said that he'd learned English just from watching American movies."

GUIDELINE III: There are lot of everyday phrases which use a.

Why are you in a rush? Whoa! Is she in a bad mood!

That's a shame! A pity! He came a couple of months ago.

I'm in a hurry. Sorry! As a matter of fact, you are late.

Have a good time! I haven't seen him in a long time.

The car quit all of a sudden. Once upon a time . . .

GUIDELINE IV: Use a or an to tell about a job or profession.

He was a doctor in China, and she was an engineer.

POTHOLE: Many other languages drop the noun marker: "He is ~teacher." This is NOT the case in English! Only with an 'of' phrase can the noun marker be dropped.

Dr. Johnson was appointed ~ Head of Staff.

Follow the normal rules for definite jobs. "He's the owner and the boss."

GUIDELINE V: Use a or an to talk about time or other rates of measurements.

Amy got a raise of a dollar an hour. Now she makes about $300 a week, after taxes. Her work shoes were $60 a pair. She sells rice for 80 cents a pound.

Starting sounds/practice

GUIDELINE VI: A can change the whole meaning of a sentence.

If just 'few' is used, it means almost none or not many at all:

They have ~few relatives that survived the war. They also have very ~few friends left, so they are lonely.

However, 'a few' means several, or a small number:

They have a few relatives who are living in Detroit.

To make it even more interesting, 'quite a few' means many:

They have quite a few relatives living right here in town.

In the same way, if 'little' is used, it means not much:

They arrived with ~little money, and very ~little food. They were basically broke.

However, 'a little' means some, an adequate amount:

They arrived with a little money. They should be able to pay the rent.

And to make it fun, 'quite a little' means a lot:

They arrived with quite a little money. They were able to buy a house.

Final practice for Noun Markers 1

Final practice for Noun Markers 2

Now you should have a good grip on noun markers! Be sure to do the practice pages so that you have mastery, not just theory! If you print this resource, continue to review it, and try to read it out loud. Your ears need to get used to hearing your mouth speak correctly!


There are other little words that come in front of nouns, which can also be markers, but which have different jobs to do than the, a, and an.

Here is a list of these other words:

possessive pronouns:

my you're his her its our their

words that point out (demonstratives):

this that these those

amount/quantity words:

all another any both each

either enough every few little

many more most much

neither no other several some

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