I'm uncertain which article to use in the following examples:

  • calotype, invented by an/the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot
  • paper, written by a/the Scottish professor John Dudgeon
  • a studio founded by an/the American George R. West
  • In 1859, a/the Swiss photographer Pierre Joseph Rossier (c.1829-1897) took the first photo....

Seeing as Scottish and Swiss work as adjectives, but Englishman is a noun, is there a preference for using one article over another?

  • 2
    If you wish to separate (slightly) the fact that an Englishman invented calotype, and the fact that his name was William Henry Fox Talbot, you use 'calotype, invented by an Englishman, William Henry Fox Talbot' (the comma is needed). If you want to 'merge' the two facts, you use 'calotype, invented by the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot'. There is one situation where I can see that a comma would be used after ' ... the Englishman': for corrective emphasis, after someone had just claimed that an Elbonian had invented the process. Commented Aug 20, 2016 at 16:57
  • Thanks for you answer! What about the other two cases, a/the Scottish professor and a/the Swiss photographer? here Scottish and Swiss work as adjectives so I am not sure if the same rule applies?
    – arsa
    Commented Aug 20, 2016 at 17:20
  • 1
    But 'Scottish professor' etc are noun phrases. Same rule. (But you could justify '... the Swiss photographer, P...' if you thought Swiss photographers were a rare breed.) Commented Aug 20, 2016 at 18:57
  • It's worth mentioning that it is also grammatical to omit the article entirely: "it was invented by Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot". Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 20:38

1 Answer 1


In your examples, you are trying to attach specific information (the creators/inventors/etc.) to their subjects. Specific things are identified using the definite article, the.

So, there is only one Scottish professor name John Dudgeon. Therefore, it would be correct to say "written by the Scottish professor John Dudgeon."

A/an are indefinite articles and communicate the the following noun is indefinite; that is, that the speaker acknowledges that there could be more than one such noun.

Saying "The paper was written by a Scottish professor John Dudgeon" communicates that "Scottish professor John Dudgeon" is non-specific or indefinite. This isn't actually incorrect, but the usage is less common. If the speaker makes no claims to knowing that there is only one Scottish professor names John Dudgeon, he might use the article "a" to emphasize that he isn't being specific. "John Dudgeon" seems like an uncommon name, so the example is quirky; consider instead the dialogue:

"Who sold you the car?"

"I bought it from some guy - a John Smith".

Here, the speaker uses the article "a" to communicate that there could be many "John Smith's".

Finally, you can communicate definite information using the indefinite article by including a comma:

Written by a Scottish professor, John Dudgeon

In this case, the sentence structure communicates that "John Dudgeon" is specific information about the more general "Scottish professor".

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