English Grammar

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CHAPTER 14.  SINGULAR COUNTABLE NOUNS

1. The use of determiners with singular countable nouns

In English, singular countable nouns usually cannot be used alone; they must be preceded by a word such as a, the, each or every.
e.g. a box
      the person
      each child
      every tree

The words a, the, each and every are examples of a group of words which can be referred to as determiners. Such words, when used together with nouns, help to determine to which particular entities the nouns are referring. Determiners other than a and the are dealt with in detail in a separate chapter.

Singular countable nouns must usually be preceded by determiners even when the nouns are also preceded by various descriptive words.
e.g. a heavy, awkward box
      the right person
      each young child
      every tall tree

The meanings of the words a and the are less specific than the meanings of the other determiners. A and the are sometimes referred to as articles. They are the determiners most frequently used with singular countable nouns.

 

2. A and An

The word a is often referred to as the indefinite article. The indefinite article has two forms: a and an. The form a is used before words which begin with a consonant sound.
e.g. a broom
      a garage
      a green apple

As well as being used before words beginning with consonants, a is also used before words which begin with vowels, but which are pronounced with an initial consonant sound. For instance, a is used before words beginning with eu and words beginning with a long u, since these words are pronounced with an initial y sound. A is also used before the word one, since one is pronounced with an initial w sound.
e.g. a euphonium
      a utensil
      a one-way street

As was mentioned in Chapter 3, a vowel followed by a single consonant, followed by another vowel, is usually pronounced long. A is used before the following words which begin with a long u:

      ubiquitous      unanimous
      unicorn      unification
      unified      uniform
      union      unique
      unison      unit
      united      university
      uranium      use
      useful      useless
      usual      usurper
      utensil      utility
      Utopia 


The word an is used before words beginning with a vowel sound.
e.g. an apple
      an old broom
      an umbrella
      an hour

As well as being used before words beginning with vowels, an is also used before the following words which begin with a silent h:

      heir
      heirloom
      honest
      honor
      honorable
      honorarium
      honorary
      honorific
      hour
      hourglass
      hourly

See Exercise 1.

 

3. The use of A and An before singular countable nouns

In many languages, the word for a is the same as the word for one. This was also formerly the case in English. Because of the association of a and an with the idea of one, a and an are usually used only with singular countable nouns.

a. A weakened form of One
A or an frequently has the meaning of a weakened form of one.
e.g. I would like a cup of tea.
      A car is parked in front of the house.
      The child owns a bicycle.

b. Naming a profession
When a sentence such as the following is used to name someone's profession, a or an must precede the name of the profession.
e.g. She is an artist.
      He is a student.

c. Making a general statement
A is referred to as the indefinite article because it can be used to refer to something in general terms. A and an are often used in general statements.
e.g. A bank account can provide a good means of saving money.
      An accountant must have a good knowledge of arithmetic.
      A good pair of scissors should be used for cutting cloth.

d. Referring to something not mentioned before
In dialogue and descriptions, a and an are used with nouns that name something which has not been referred to previously.
e.g. Where can I find a telephone?
      Suddenly we heard an eerie sound.
      All at once a moose appeared in front of us.
In these examples, it is assumed that the things referred to by the nouns telephone, sound and moose have not been referred to previously.

e. A or An with the meaning of Per
A or an can also be used with the meaning of per.
e.g. once a week
      two dollars a dozen
      four times a year
In these examples, a has the meaning of per. For instance, once a week means once per week, and two dollars a dozen means two dollars per dozen.

 

4. The use of The before singular countable nouns

The word the is often referred to as the definite article. The Old English word from which the is derived was used as a demonstrative pronoun, with a meaning similar to that of the modern English words this and that. In modern English, the word the is usually used with a noun when the speaker or writer feels that there will be no doubt about which particular thing is meant.

a. Referring to something mentioned before
The is used with nouns referring to things previously mentioned.
e.g. Here is the book I mentioned to you last week.
      As I was walking to work I passed a garden. The garden was full of roses.
In the first example, the is used with book, because the book has been mentioned previously. In the second example, the first time the garden is referred to, the indefinite article a is used, because the garden has not been mentioned previously. The second time the garden is referred to, the definite article the is used, because the garden has already been mentioned.

See Exercise 2.

b. Referring to something unique
The is used when referring to things which are unique, since in such cases there can be no doubt about which particular thing is meant.
e.g. I have found the answer.
      This is the shortest route into town.
In the first example, the would be used if there is only one possible answer. In the second example, the is used because only one route can be the shortest one.

Expressions such as middle of and top of are generally preceded by the, since it is considered that there can, for example, be only one middle or one top of something.
e.g. There is a car stopped in the middle of the road.
      She is at the top of her class.
      They like to be the center of attention.
      The police are determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

c. Referring to something when it is considered obvious what is meant
The is also used when, because the thing being referred to is the most important one of its kind to the speaker or writer, it is assumed that it will be understood which particular thing is meant.
e.g. The house needs to be painted.
      The sun rose at six o'clock this morning.
      I'm going to the park.
      Don't slam the door.

These sentences give examples of the use of the to refer to things which are not in fact unique, but which are uniquely important to the speaker or writer. The expression the house is often used when referring to one's own house. The expression the sun almost always refers to the sun which is closest to the earth. The expression the park might be used to refer to the only park in the vicinity, or to a park which one visits often. In the sentence Don't slam the door, the expression the door might refer to the door of the room or building which one is presently occupying.

d. Referring to something as a class
When preceded by the, a singular countable noun can be used to represent something as a class.
e.g. The telephone is a modern convenience.
      The horse is a domesticated animal.
      The eagle is a bird of prey.
In the first example, the telephone refers to telephones considered as a class. Likewise, in the other examples, the horse refers to horses considered as a class, and the eagle refers to eagles considered as a class.

It should be noted that the is not used when the word man represents the human race considered as a class.
e.g. Man has invented many things.
      The dolphin may be as intelligent as man.

See Exercise 3.

 

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