Singular Countable Nouns

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 atheeach or every.
e.g. a box
the person
each child
every tree

The words atheeach 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 onea 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 telephonesound 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.

EXERCISES for Chapter 14

Exercise 1

Rewrite each of the following sentences, changing the subject of the verb to the singular, inserting a or an before the subject, as appropriate, and changing the verb to agree with the subject. For example:
Violins are difficult to play.
A violin is difficult to play.

Unions have been formed.
A union has been formed.

Answers are always provided.
An answer is always provided.

Heirs have many friends.
An heir has many friends.

  1. Avocados are expensive.
  2. Windows are an important feature of an artist’s studio.
  3. Umbrellas should not be used during a thunderstorm.
  4. Horses can be useful in the mountains.
  5. Cashews are a type of nut.
  6. Onions can be used for flavoring soup.
  7. Trucks have many uses.
  8. Hours passed.
  9. Sentences should have proper punctuation.
  10. Escalators are very convenient.
  11. Uniforms must be worn.
  12. Boxes were found on the floor.
  13. Marshes lie beyond the city boundary.
  14. Ideas can be valuable.
  15. Eggs are a good source of protein.

Exercise 2

Fill in each blank with either the indefinite article (a or an) or the definite article (the). Use a or an with nouns referring to people or things which have not been mentioned previously, and use the with nouns referring to people or things which have been mentioned previously.

I had never visited Seretnay Park before. Last week I went to ____ park and chose ____ tour to take. There were twenty tourists and one guide. ____ guide asked what we wanted to see. I said I had never seen ____ eagle, and I would like to see one. ____ child on ____ tour said he would like to see ____ beaver, since he had heard there were many in ____ park. ____ guide said he would do his best. First he led us along ____ road, and then we turned off onto ____ path. To our right was ____ marshy pond.

Suddenly ____ child who had spoken before shouted, “Look! I see ____ beaver!” Of course ____ beaver was startled. It slapped its tail and disappeared into pond.

Our guide pointed to ____ pile of sticks and said, “That’s where ____ beaver lives. That’s his house.” I had my camera with me, and took ____ photograph of ____ house.

As we were standing there, ____ guide was looking across ____ pond through ____ small telescope. After a minute, he tapped my shoulder and handed me ____ telescope. He pointed to ____ tall tree and said, “Do you see that white speck? That’s ____ bald eagle.”

I had difficulty focusing ____ telescope, but finally I saw ____ eagle. As I watched, ____ eagle spread its wings and soared over the water.

It was ____ wonderful experience for me to see some of the wild creatures that live in ____ park.

Exercise 3

Fill in each blank with aan or the. Be prepared to justify your choice. For example:
___ moon is full tonight.
The moon is full tonight.

He is ___ singer.
He is a singer.

Please sit in ___ center of the boat.
Please sit in the center of the boat.

The room costs twenty dollars ___ day.
The room costs twenty dollars a day.

___ wheel is considered one of mankind’s most important inventions.
The wheel is considered one of mankind’s most important inventions.

  1. His aunt is ____ teacher.
  2. ____ architect is trained in design, drafting, and economics.
  3. ____ ostrich is the world’s largest bird.
  4. Buses pass this point two or three times ____ hour.
  5. Plants gain energy from the light of ____ sun.
  6. I woke up in ____ middle of the night.
  7. She is ____ doctor.
  8. ____ seal is an excellent swimmer.
  9. Our eyes usually blink several times ____ minute.
  10. At ____ equator, sunrise occurs at the same time each day.
  11. He is ____ author.
  12. They wanted to hear ____ end of the story.
  13. Such a severe storm occurs only once ____ decade.
  14. Mount Everest is tallest mountain in ____ world.
  15. There is an index at ____ back of the book.

ANSWERS TO THE EXERCISES for Chapter 14

Answers to Exercise 1:

  1. An avocado is 2. A window is 3. An umbrella should not be used 4. A horse can be 5. A cashew is 6. An onion can be used 7. A truck has 8. An hour passed 9. A sentence should have 10. An escalator is 11. A uniform must be worn 12. A box was found 13. A marsh lies 14. An idea can be 15. An egg is

Answers to Exercise 2:

the park, a tour. The guide. an eagle. A child, the tour, a beaver, the park. The guide. a road, a path, a marshy pond. the child, a beaver. the beaver. the pond. a pile, the beaver. a photograph, the house. the guide, the pond, a small telescope. the telescope. a tall tree. a bald eagle. the telescope, theeagle. the eagle. a wonderful experience, the park.

Answers to Exercise 3:

  1. a [profession] 2. An [general statement] 3. The [considered as a class] 4. an [per] 5. the [obvious what is meant] 6. the [unique] 7. a [profession] 8. A [general statement] 9. a [per] 10. the [unique] 11. an [profession] 12. the [unique] 13. a [per] 14. the [unique], the [obvious what is meant] 15. the [unique]
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