English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

So I was told that the English articles "a" and "an" have Germanic origins. In German, there is not a distinction between "one" and "a/an". Is there any explanation for the existence of these two different words in English? Is there a situation in which "one" and "a/an" cannot be interchanged? I suspect that "a/an" is just easier to say....but maybe I am just biased to think so, as I am a native English speaker.

share|improve this question
I thought in German you have both? Like, eine pizza and die pizza, or something like that? – RiMMER Nov 19 '11 at 20:10
Welcome, SWV but this too big and too general a question to be answered in a paragraph or two here. The Oxford English Dictionary has 745 words on the topic. To understand why we use 'a'/'an' you first have to understand the difference between definite and indefinite. You should be able to find information on that readily enough elsewhere. A moment's reflection will show that there are many situations where 'one' and 'a'/'an' are not interchangeable. Would you say 'I'd like one lot of money' if you meant 'I'd like a lot of money'? – Barrie England Nov 19 '11 at 20:16
@RiMMERΨ: I may be wrong, but I think you are comparing the German equivalents of "a/an" and "the." – SWV Nov 19 '11 at 20:18
@RiMMERΨ Ψ: In German, 'eine Pizza' is indefinite, 'die Pizza, definite. But SWV is right in saying that 'ein' (with its other inflected forms) means 'one' as well as 'a'. – Barrie England Nov 19 '11 at 20:20
@BarrieEngland: I don't really see the difference between "one lot" and "a lot." Presumably, one seems more specific than the other; however, I interpret both to be equally vague, as it is the word "lot" the carries quantitative ambiguity. – SWV Nov 19 '11 at 20:22

A/an isn't used when counting. What's more, in narrations, we say one day, one afternoon, one cannot be replaced by a/an in these expressions.

It's true that in other languages the indefinite article isn't different from the word denoting the number 1. In The Free Dictionary it is stated that the differentiation came about through the pronunciation of the word one without stress (I suppose when not counting).

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.