The takes either a singular or a plural subject. A/an only takes the singular.

When we pluralize a noun preceded by an indefinite article, we simply drop the article (sometimes replacing it with some). Why is this?

3 years later:

Whilst on a separate goose-chase, I came across Greg Carlson's 1977 paper A Unified Analysis of the English Bare Plural, which addresses this issue in refreshing detail. It does not answer my question etymologically, but it substantiates the premise that the so-called null determiner is ambiguous:

ABSTRACT. It is argued that the English ‘bare plural’ (an NP with plural head that lacks a determiner), in spite of its apparently diverse possibilities of interpretation, is optimally represented in the grammar as a unified phenomenon. The chief distinction to be dealt with is that between the ‘generic’ use of the bare plural (as in ‘Dogs bark’) and its existential or ‘indefinite plural’ use (as in ‘He threw oranges at Alice’). ‘Ihe difference between these uses is not to be accounted for by an ambiguity in the NP itself, but rather by explicating how the context of the sentence acts on the bare plural to give rise to this distinction. A brief analysis is sketched in which bare plurals are treated in all instances as proper names of kinds of things. A subsidiary argument is that the null determiner is not to be regarded as the plural of the indefinite article a.

The primary distinction is summed up in these examples:

Weeds grow refers to all weeds, or weeds in general. It is not equivalent to Some weeds grow.

Weeds grow in my garden refers to some weeds, and is equivalent to Some weeds grow in my garden.

I understand that context is often sufficient to determine the scope of the noun without a plural indefinite article1 - but that applies to the singular indefinite article a/an as well. In fact, it seems that a/an is even more redundant, since both Dog barks and Dog barks in my garden are equally indefinite, not generic.

1Carlson 2001 is further germane analysis. In here, he gives examples of sentences for which context is not sufficient to determine the scope of the null determiner. For instance, I only excluded old ladies can mean I excluded all old ladies (generic), or that all those whom I excluded happen to have been old ladies (indefinite - some old ladies may have gotten in after all).

  • 7
    How are we supposed to answer why something isn't?
    – MrHen
    Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 19:28
  • 1
    @MrHen: Colin Fine says Maori has a plural indefinite article, so it's not like the concept is meaningless. And the fact that we call the/a/an the definite/indefinite articles suggests they have much in common. In which case it's potentially enlightening to examine things they don't have in common, such as the ability to take a plural subject. Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 3:09
  • 1
    @Alain: You must undelete your answer! It was excellent: I was going to answer something like that. P.S. The Greeks did have articles, just no indefinite ones. Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 3:36
  • 1
    @MrHen: There can be reasons why, contrary to what one might expect, a certain feature never developed. In this case, Alain's deleted answer explain it it very nicely and informatively, I should think. Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 15:19
  • 1
    This question has been repeated on redd.it/52nm5e
    – user50720
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 0:12

9 Answers 9


In most languages indefinite articles stem from that language's word for one. For instance in French un, or in German ein, In Italian and Spanish uno or in Portuguese um.

English is no exception: an was derived from one. Note that an was the original indefinite article; the shorter a came later when the final "n" was dropped before consonants.

In some of the languages I mentioned above, the plural form of the indefinite articles is simply formed by applying the noun plural inflection: unos/unas or uns/umas.

In others, such as German and Italian, there is no plural form to the indefinite article. Italian use the partitive article degli/delle as a substitute and this is probably also the origin of the French plural form des.

For some reason English did not go through this last step either. To understand why we need to go back to the way Old English solved the problem.

In Old English adjectives have a different declension depending on whether the noun they qualify is determined or not.

"The glad man" reads

se glæd guma

whereas, "a happy man" is:

glæda guma

As one can see, only the adjective changes.
For one given adjective, you could therefore have different inflections depending on:
- the noun gender (masculine, feminine, neuter)
- the noun being singular or plural
- the four cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative)
- whether the reference is definite or indefinite.
So that the same adjective would have to follow either the "definite" declension or one of three "indefinite" declensions.

þa glædan guman

The theory I'm trying to check (community please feel free to edit) is that in various languages (Icelandic for a language very close to Old English or Romanian) the article is added as a suffix to the noun. Then it often "detaches" and passes in front of the noun. Icelandic is half way through for the definite article in that matter.

As for the Old English indefinite article, my conjecture is that the process never went through for a number of possible reasons:
- The "loss of inflection" of early Middle English won the race
- The plural of "an" was not easy to evolve at that time (the Romance "-s" plural had not imposed itself yet).

But the need is still there, just as in any other language where a specific word emerged for the plural indefinite article. This gap is filled by placeholders such as some or a number of.

Most linguist agree that Proto Indo European did not use articles. Latin does not have any kind of article, and Ancient Greek arguably had no indefinite article either - it was using something very much like present-day English some (τις - "a certain"). And I believe that Old German did not have any article either.

It is a very remarkable fact that articles appeared in many modern Indo European languages in a largely mutually independent yet very similar manner. My feeling is that their emergence compensates for the gradual loss of inflection in these languages. But then present-day German is a powerful counterexample...

  • I don't believe that German has a plural form of indefinite articles (einem is dative singular), but Spanish and Catalan (two languages I don't know) apparently do. Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 17:22
  • 1
    @PeterShor, Thanks. I corrected. Actually Italian doesn't have any plural article either. As for German I'll be tempted to use "einige" (which is also present in Old English (ænig) and actually evolved into "any"). Thx community ;-) Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 17:49
  • 2
    @Peter Shor: Indeed, Spanish, Catalan and Galician do have plural indefinite articles.
    – CesarGon
    Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 21:33
  • Yay! Excellent. // Your theory that articles developed to compensate for loss of inflection may be true for the indefinite article; for definite articles, it may still be true, but Greek weakens it a bit (elaborate inflection but plentiful definite articles). // As to your theory about articles having originally been suffixes: surely that applies only to those few languages you mentioned? // German has three types of adject. inflection, roughly 1. after definite article, 2. after indefinite article, 3. without article. Dutch has 1. definite, 2. indefinite/without. Greek had no different types. Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 1:52
  • 1
    French does have an indefinite plural article: “des” Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 10:52

As pointed out elsewhere, language is the result of an evolutionary process, not logical design.

The origins of the word "the" aren't connected with those of "a/an", so there's no reason why they should share all characteristics.

As OP says, "some" can function as a kind of 'plural' for "a/an". So can "a few", "a number of", etc. In some contexts, "any" can be used as the pluralised version of "a/an". I'm not overly concerned about the scope of the term "indefinite article" – it's just a (sometimes enlightening) name we often use, not a 'pre-existing' class into which any given word either falls or doesn't.

It's not as if our language is seriously restricted by not allowing for "a/an" to be used of multiple subjects. And after all, in some contexts "a" can effectively refer to multiple subjects where "the" implies a single one...

"A president should be allowed to say he 'screwed up', surely?"

"I'm not talking about a president, the president shouldn't have said that!"

LATER: More specifically addressing OP's question as to why "a/an" can't be pluralised the same as "the". Firstly, note that in the above example, "a" is effectively pluralised – as becomes clear when you realise it means "presidents in general" rather than "a randomly selected president".

Secondly, consider "Recipe: Mix some cloves, a cinnamon stick, and apples in a bowl". There's no need for an article when we pluralise "an apple" there.

Thirdly, as @Robusto implies, some/many/most/all contexts where you would use the indefinite article in reference to "one of it" simply don't lead to meaningful contexts if there is more than one of it.

Fourthly, "a" can mean exactly "one", particularly in contexts associated with 'countability' (so can "the", but more in the context of 'identification'). This makes us leery of using it around plural subjects, because we sense it sits uneasily with 'one-ness' of "a".

  • So it's just the randomness in language formation? There's no logical reason for it?
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 16:46
  • Umm. One of the forces affecting language change is in fact logic - in various ways including the bias towards adopting forms that seem to correspond to our logical view of the world, and discarding those that don't. Which is why English, for example, has managed to ditch a lot of the 'sexual gender' distinctions made irrelevantly in lots of other languages. Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 16:51
  • So would you say that we should introduce a plural indefinite article, to be more logical?
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 16:57
  • 1
    Nowhere near as much as I would say we should introduce a gender-neutral personal pronoun to substitute for his/hers, and that ain't gonna happen any time soon. I didn't say it's overridingly important that language be logical; just that logical considerations do affect its evolution sometimes. I'm mainly a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist. Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 17:03
  • 1
    Somewhat conveniently, you fail to mention that we get along just fine without a plural indefinite article.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 18:37

When you are referring to a specific item or specific items, you use "the", like

I have the steak.


I have the steaks.

When you are referring to a "nonspecific" item, you use "a" for the singular, like

I have a steak.

If you were to leave out "a", you would get

I have steak.

How many steaks do you have? One massive steak? Two steaks? Exactly π steaks? 4/5 of a steak? Without the article, "steak" in this example becomes a "non-counted" entity; you aren't indicating anything about whether there are discrete items. In

I have a steak.

you are referring to a collection of discrete items. When you say

I have steaks.

though, it is clear that you are referring to discrete items. If "steaks" is plural, you have to be able to count them and therefore have to have more than one discrete item. The article isn't necessary. However, you can say

I have some steaks.

According to the Wikipedia entry for "article (grammar)", "The articles in the English language are the and a/an, and (in some contexts) some." (emphasis added) In the case of talking about "indefinite objects", the article isn't needed to show that you are talking about discrete items or specific items.

  • 3
    This in no wise answers the question, except for your last paragraph, which quotes an entirely unreferenced opinion in Wikipedia. (I'm not saying it is wrong, just that Wikipedia is reliable only where it is referenced). I'm sure @drm65 knows all you are saying, but is asking Why? My answer is with FumbleFingers: because it doesn't. It is probably not a coincidence that AFAIK no European language has a plural indefinite article: Maori is an example of a language which has.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 0:20
  • 1
    @Colin: In a number of different European languages (English, German, French, Hungarian), the indefinite article comes from the word for 1, which explains why it doesn't pluralize. It doesn't seem likely to me that this simultaneous evolution could have been a coincidence, although it is indeed remarkably natural. Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 15:15
  • @Colin: Catalan seems to be a European language with indefinite articles in the plural, and also one which gives a counterexample to my previous comment. Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 15:32
  • 1
    @Peter Shor: As I said somewhere else, you don't need to look at Catalan (which is a correct example); Spanish has indefinite articles in the plural as well and is likely to be better known here.
    – CesarGon
    Commented Jul 29, 2011 at 0:43
  • @compman: I think you mean "discrete"
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 15:07

It appears that Old English did not have any indefinite articles. And from Wikipedia:

English uses a/an, from the Old English forms of the number 'one', as its primary indefinite article.

If a/an was derived from an, which was derived from the number one, there logically wouldn't be any corresponding derivation of a plural indefinite article. So modern English doesn't have one.

  • 1
    The Old English form of the modern English "this guy" meaning "a guy" as in "So, this guy walks into a bar..." was "sum man", and "sum" was declined as an adjective.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 14:46
  • By "form" I should better have written "counterpart".
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 15:05
  • The Spanish plural unos/unas suggests that an English plural like ?ones/ans or (if it is an adjective and so did not decline) one/an/a might not be logically impossible
    – Henry
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 7:44

I realize that some is an effective substitute for plural a, but in that case, why is it not considered to be an indefinite article?

Because in English the indefinite articles are an and a; some, a, an, the, and other words are classified as determiners.
It just a matter of classification; for example, the NOAD copy that comes with Mac OS X 10.6 ("New Oxford American Dictionary 2nd edition © 2005 by Oxford University Press, Inc.") classifies a and the as adjectives.

a /eɪ/ (an before a vowel sound) [called the indefinite article]
1. used when referring to someone or something for the first time in a text or conversation: "a man came out of the room"; "it has been an honor to have you"; "we need people with a knowledge of languages."

the /ði/ /ð(ə)/ /ði/ [called the definite article]
1. denoting one or more people or things already mentioned or assumed to be common knowledge: "what's the matter?"; "call the doctor"; "the phone rang."

The NOAD that comes with the Mac OS X 10.7 ("New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc.") defines the articles as determiners.

  • This doesn't answer the question. --"Why aren't dogs considered to be reptiles?" --"Because reptiles are (insert exhaustive list of reptiles here)." To answer the question, we need to establish definitions for "determiner" and "indefinite article", and establish why "a/an" meets the criteria for both, while "some" fails to meet the criteria for "indefinite article"
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 15:21
  • 'The' is not an adjective. It is not a quality of the subject but a quality of the memory of the subject - that it was most recently activated. It helps determine which to access. Before a narrative is stored in the brain, 'the' has already been eliminated from the meme.
    – AmI
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 21:15

Probably because you don't need an article with plural nouns.


A unicorn is a mythical beast.


Unicorns are mythical beasts.

You would use definite plural pronouns if you want to refer to a specific group within a larger set.

These unicorns are mythical. Those unicorns are real.

  • 6
    But if we didn't have any singular indefinite articles (as in some languages), we wouldn't need them, either. I'm not asking whether we need them; I'm asking why we have one and not the other. Both are equally optional.
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 16:33
  • 1
    Just to cloud the issue a bit more, I see nothing wrong with saying "The unicorn is a mythical beast". :) Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 16:54
  • @drm65: If we didn't have a use for them, we wouldn't have them. That's as much as you can say. A language has what it finds useful to have. Obviously, in English both are not needed, else we would have them.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 18:34
  • @FumbleFingers: That is not germane to the issue. No one disputes that you can use the definite article to construct a similar sentence.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 18:35
  • 3
    I didn't raise the possibility of interchanging "the" and "a" to refute anything said or implied. Just to suggest possible further complexity in that we might use "the" instead of pluralised "a". Your reaction seems unduly curt and dismissive. Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 19:02

I believe that your quest started from the well-know but erroneous assumption that the core function of "a/an" is to determine a following noun as indefinite, as the name "indefinite article" suggests.

The core function of "a/an" is not to determine the following noun as indefinite but to determine the following noun as an individual entity. Only after "a/an" determines the following noun as an individual entity can the "indefinite" article determine the following noun as indefinite.

Therefore, the so-called "indefinite" article is automatically precluded from preceding any plural noun, because plural nouns cannot be determined as an individual entity.


The plural indefinite is probably not in use because it would be superfluous given other more efficent ways of expressing the notion of indefinite.

We use spoons to eat our soup in this land, though in other lands men drink straight from the bowl.

We use [plural indefinite article] spoons to eat our soup in this land...

We use a spoon to eat our soup, don't we, Johnny?

  • 1
    If this were relevant, why should we have a singular indefinite article? This is not an answer, but a restatement of the question.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 23:09

In English, we do not inflect adjectives by number. In particular, we do not inflect articles by number. (Unlike French ... l'haricot vert and les haricots verts.)

  • 3
    True enough, but that doesn't have much to do with the question. Adjectives, though not inflected by number, are able to modify either singular or plural subjects. The indefinite article is also not inflected by number, but unlike common adjectives it is not able to modify plural subjects. My question was: why not?
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 17:54
  • 2
    I wonder. A with plural, collective... "A government have the right to do that." Too strange.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 19:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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