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I'm a teacher and was doing articles with my students. This sentence, however, really got me stuck!

We are entering [an] uncertain future.

Why is there an indefinite article here? At first, I thought it was because future wasn't countable, but of course, it is. Then, I wondered if it was an abstract concept. Is it because it's a non-defined/non-specific future i.e., one of 'any' futures, which is uncertain?

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  • You didn't say whether the students were native speakers or not (English teacher is ambiguous that way). It makes a difference how you explain it to people who already know how to use it, versus those who don't. Though you might want to think about when we say the future -- it's not only indefinite, it's not even determined yet. Yet it gets a definite article, like I dialed the wrong number. Articles have no meaning; there isn't a single rule for them. Instead, there are hundreds of them, each applying to only a few words or idioms. Jun 14 at 15:18
  • Compare this question on "a world". (And I think there's another similar question somewhere too, but searching is hard.)
    – Stuart F
    Jun 14 at 15:20
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    This is not specific to "future". Cf: "We are entering a big house." "We are entering a foreign country." "We are entering a new era." You can't omit the determiner. Jun 14 at 15:48
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    Usually when we talk about "the future", we are using "the future" to refer to all the time after now. There's only one of those. But, usually, when we think about "a future" we are thinking about the future prospects for a person or group in a particular situation relevant just to them, which we can contrast with the different prospects available to other people in other situations or the potentially different prospects that person or group could have. Jun 14 at 16:36
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    Does this answer your question? Indefinite article with uncountable nouns I'll claim that 'We are entering an uncertain future' involves a noncount usage of 'future' ('I can foresee two uncertain futures' is really pushing it) but the use of the indefinite article with some noncount noun-usages (hinting at different possibilities say) is well known ('She took a pride in her work'; 2/6/43 prides???) and has been covered before on ELU. Jun 16 at 12:26

3 Answers 3

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The reason is very simple. When something is not specific, we use a/an. When it is specific, we use the.

  • The future looked grim. [The specific future we all face or the one faced by the narrator in a situation.]

  • A future without hope is a dismal prospect. [future there is not specific and this is a general statement].

  • We are entering the uncertain future predicted by economists. [specific]

  • We are entering an uncertain future, characterized by product shortages and unemployment. [not specific, a general statement]

Here it all is from the Purdue Writing Lab:

Using Articles What is an article? Basically, an article is an adjective. Like adjectives, articles modify nouns.

English has two articles: the and a/an. The is used to refer to specific or particular nouns; a/an is used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. We call the the definite article and a/an the indefinite article.

the = definite article

a/an = indefinite article

For example, if I say, "Let's read the book," I mean a specific book. If I say, "Let's read a book," I mean any book rather than a specific book.

Here's another way to explain it: The is used to refer to a specific or particular member of a group. For example, "I just saw the most popular movie of the year." There are many movies, but only one particular movie is the most popular. Therefore, we use the.

"A/an" is used to refer to a non-specific or non-particular member of the group. For example, "I would like to go see a movie." Here, we're not talking about a specific movie. We're talking about any movie. There are many movies, and I want to see any movie. I don't have a specific one in mind.

Purdue writing lab

There are many futures. Which one will be yours/ ["Oh, look, Ma, a plural future".] [For extra points, explain the difference between a future and futures.]

Final comment: This a/an versus the thing is a general feature of the English language and does not just apply to sentences like the one posted by the OP. :)

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  • Using "the" is not precluded by the definition of "future" as "what will happen to somebody…".
    – LPH
    Jun 14 at 17:02
  • It means that you can say "The future John had chosen for himself was bound not to please him.", and this sentence shows a perfectly sensible use ot "the", although "future" is defined as in the definitions "2" of my answer.
    – LPH
    Jun 14 at 17:07
  • It is so only very roughly, as you can say that the two related acceptations deal with events to be possibly realized in a time beyond the present moment.
    – LPH
    Jun 14 at 17:26
  • The issue is a/an versus the + any noun. Gees. Not the word future.
    – Lambie
    Jun 14 at 18:55
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    Where in the OP's question do you make out that this is so?
    – LPH
    Jun 14 at 19:46
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Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head. An uncertain future is a bit of a question mark, so the sentence is about one such possible future, I guess.

Here's an analogy. You're taking a math test, and I designed a question that has multiple possible answers, because I taught you multiple ways to tackle the problem. When I'm writing the answer key for the teaching assistants to use in grading, I might say, "Take off 2 points for an answer that does not reach the correct conclusion."

But another problem has only one correct answer, and there, I could say, "Take off 2 points if the answer does not reach the correct conclusion but the student set up the problem correctly."

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In fact, "future" can be countable, as the OALD shows.

(OALD) 2 [countable] what will happen to somebody/something at a later time

  • The company faces a very uncertain future.
  • We must seize the opportunity to shape our future.
  • This deal could secure the futures of 2  000 employees.
    to decide/determine the future of somebody/something
  • Recent events throw doubt on the president’s political future.

The alternate definition can't be that which applies in this sentence. Here is this definition.

(OALD) 1 the future [singular] the time that will come after the present or the events that will happen then

  • We need to plan for the future.
    in the future
  • The movie is set in the future.
  • at some point/time in the future
  • I don't expect any of these things to happen in the near future (= soon).
  • Things will continue as they are for the foreseeable future.
  • the immediate/not-too-distant/long-term/distant future
  • Nobody can predict the future.
  • What does the future hold?
    of the future
  • What will the cities of the future look like?
  • Kevin talked about his hopes for the future.

We see that the article "the" is compulsory when using the word in this sense. When the word "future" occurs before a noun, the word is the adjective, which does, however, correspond to the meaning in "1". (at a future date, future generations, their future expansion,…)

Should we use "an" "because it's a non-defined/non-specific future i.e., one of 'any' futures, which is uncertain"?

I believe that to be the reason, except I'd formulate it slightly differently, since "future" can be used but only as either in sense "1" or "2". "Future" in sense "2" is more aptly defined in the SOED in the following way.

(SOED) 2 The prospective condition (spec. a succesful, prosperous one) of a person, country, etc.

Whereas "future" in sense "1" is not a prospective set of all the events bound to happen but the set of them that must result, "future" in sense "2" is conceived only as a possible set of future events, but restricted as concerning a small part of the world; this is done in the light that we know that in this particular case (persons, nations, organizations, etc.) the human factor plays a directing role which allows for a certain measure of choice in the shaping of these events. We can say that the future will comprise, among other things, all such prospective conditions imaginable that will be realized in it.

You can't do away with "an".

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