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I've seen many non-native speakers of English not making use of indefinite articles, presumably since their first language did not contain them. Thinking about this, and about the fact that even in English we get along fine without a plural indefinite article (only singular), I wonder why the indefinite article in theory is helpful. It seems to be an arbitrary particle, without the use of which we lose no meaning:

A tall man saw a black dog. --> Tall man saw black dog.

This sounds stilted; but if we switch gears to plural nouns, it sounds better without articles because English has no plural indefinite articles, only singular:

Tall men saw black dogs.

The presumption here is that we could understand the nouns in the above sentences as if they had invisible indefinite articles. Therefore, no article = indefinite article, as in many other languages, and as with English plural nouns. My basic question is this: What does the indefinite article accomplish? I'm not asking if we should stop using it - obviously it's here to stay for the time being, but is there something I'm missing that supports its existence? Was there a logical reason it came into being, or did it have a subconscious debut? (OK, I'm a language cynic, but deep down, so are you. ;)

Apparently the article an (a being a variant) derives from the OE ān meaning "one, in a weakened sense". Is there any further etymology of the indefinite article, or did its usage arise around 950 A.D.? Did English always have an indefinite article? I'm asking because I want to see intermediate usages if possible: usages of a while a was still being born.

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closed as not a real question by Kit Z. Fox, Robusto, simchona, JSBձոգչ, z7sg Ѫ Sep 27 '11 at 12:41

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

This similar question was closed because it was overly broad. I think the same applies to this question (although it is a very interesting question). –  Kit Z. Fox Sep 26 '11 at 0:07
I respectfully disagree with your vote, and would like to ask for the reason: in what way is the question ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical? –  Daniel Sep 26 '11 at 0:11
I feel that a good answer to this question would require a thesis and the awarding of a degree at the end of it. You are asking for discourse on the history of the indefinite article in the English language. I feel the same way about your question on why there is no plural indefinite. –  Kit Z. Fox Sep 26 '11 at 0:25
Not using the indefinite article is an omission of syntax, and in that sense it is understood: Guy goes into a bar. (Set-up for a joke.) What was he like? Big guy, pro wrestler type. But that's about it. Your statement, "Tall men saw black dogs," is next to useless, even though it might be perfectly fine in other languages (say, Russian or Japanese). –  Robusto Sep 26 '11 at 0:48
What do you mean by "next to useless"? Tall men saw black dogs means that more than one tall man saw more than one black dog. It has meaning, and in context it has as much meaning as if we had plural indefinite articles before the nouns. Or did you mean Tall man saw black dog (singular)? In that case, I'd say the same thing. –  Daniel Sep 26 '11 at 12:19

4 Answers 4

Your assumption that definite articles are somehow more useful than indefinite ones is contradicted by the fact that many languages have neither. But the general answer to your question seems to be that English and other languages acquired articles as they were losing declination, to show different shades of meaning.

Latin did not, and (most?) Slavic languages do not, have articles. Neither, apparently, did Old English.

Romance languages, as well as other Germanic ones, also use the word for "one" as the indefinite article. In these languages, the definite article generally derives from the word for "that", as it does in English.

Romanian and the Scandinavian languages use suffixes for these, interestingly. "The Strand" in Oslo is called "Stranden", with "-en" meaning "the".

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Did I assume that? I didn't even address definite articles, on purpose, to keep it simpler. –  Daniel Sep 26 '11 at 20:56
Perhaps I misinterpreted "no article = indefinite article, as in many other languages." I'm not aware of any language for which this is true. I'm only aware of several languages that have no articles whatsoever, and several that have both definite and indefinite articles. –  phoog Sep 27 '11 at 14:57
Examples of definite articles only include Icelandic and (arguably) Ancient Greek. Icelandic almost developed an indefinite article in the 16th and 17th centuries under Danish influence but this was later reversed with the rise of linguistic nationalism. –  Henry Sep 8 at 7:00

Just in comparing your two example sentences, the latter to me carries an implication that there is a specific "tall man" and specific "black dog" being referred to, and I should know them both. With the "A" in front of them, they are transformed to generic versions that the speaker is in fact assuming I'm unfamiliar with.

So I disagree that no information would be lost by getting rid of the indefinite article. I rather like being able to make that disctinction.

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You seem to be supposing that I suggest removing the indefinite article as it now stands. I do not. I am wondering why it was established in the first place. I don't disagree that since we have gotten used to an indefinite article, the lack thereof seems to carry a different meaning. –  Daniel Sep 26 '11 at 14:49
@drɱ65δ - You should probably have asked that then. Your extended discussion about why you think it doesn't make sense to have in the language as it stands today isn't particuarly relevant if you just want to know how it got into the language in the first place, and the question in your title is phrased in the present tense. –  T.E.D. Sep 26 '11 at 18:08
But, if referring to a specific man and a specific dog, one would more likely say The tall man saw the black dog. –  phoog Sep 26 '11 at 18:08
@T.E.D.: Asking why something is is not the same as saying that it shouldn't be. –  phoog Sep 26 '11 at 18:18

Some languages express the indefinite by changing the ends of the words like Latin or Arabic for example.

Because Engish does not use this system of noun declension (apart from very limited cases) it uses articles placed in front of the word - in this case 'a'

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I wouldn't have thought that was true of Latin and Arabic. Can you give some examples? –  Barrie England Sep 26 '11 at 8:20
Latin does not express indefiniteness by altering the ending of the word. You seem to have confused indefinite articles with case. –  JSBձոգչ Sep 26 '11 at 18:34

I would say that a/an allows us to specify the number of the noun referred to, and that is the main need for it to remain.

Wikipedia says that "some" can act as a plural indefinite article. Its function seems to be to limit the number somewhat, too. It at least implies that you don't want all apples in the second example below:

  • Give me an apple
  • Give me some apples
  • Give me apples

Also, English has too many irregular forms to let you simply use the singular without an indefinite article. If you say "I like deer" are you saying "There is a deer I like", or "I like the animal called deer in general" or "I like deer meat" (yes, I know the correct word is venison).


I like an apple says that there is one (otherwise unspecified, at least so far) apple that I like.

I like apple says I like the flavor of apples (no number).

I like some apples means there may be apples I don't like, but others that I like.

I like apples says that I will like pretty much any apple.

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+1 for the insight, but as to the "main need", Man saw cricket is not ambiguous: it can only refer to one man and one cricket. –  Daniel Sep 25 '11 at 23:42
Actually, and this is no kidding, the first image that "man saw cricket" brought to my mind was of a man watching the game cricket. So one man, yes, but many cricket matches (on TV). Then, too, "man" could mean "mankind". That is what I meant by "irregular forms"...not just oddly formed plurals and collective nouns, but words that carry several distinct meanings. I am sure someone can state the case better than me, though. –  JeffSahol Sep 25 '11 at 23:51
Also, I like apple is an idiom which doesn't extend to most words (e.g. house in I like house) Without an indefinite article, we would have another idiom for the same thing. I think that it is an insufficient reason to say that the purpose of the indefinite article is to distinguish I like an apple from I like apple. –  Daniel Sep 25 '11 at 23:53
@drɱ65δ Without the article, "Man" could refer to mankind. Sure, it's not too ambiguous in your example, but I can think of numerous aphorisms whose meanings would change. eg, Einstein's quote: "The value of a man should be seen in what he gives and not in what he is able to receive." –  ghoppe Sep 25 '11 at 23:56
@ghoppe, Jeff: So are you saying that the indefinite article exists to distinguish the collective nouns (e.g. man meaning mankind) from the singular indefinite nouns (e.g. man meaning a man)? If so, I believe you may be switching cause and effect. If we originally had no indefinite articles, we would have other ways of getting around that. I realize that the indefinite article has been so relied upon and taken for granted that we can no longer remove it from English. –  Daniel Sep 25 '11 at 23:58

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