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Which article should I use before the word “email”?

We’ve sent (an/the) email to address@gmail.com

(An/The) email has been sent to address@gmail.com

I’ve noticed the website Bitbucket responded We’ve sent an email after I signed up. But I can’t understand why the article “an” is used there, if the site knows what mail it is talking about.

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Either article could be considered correct, depending on the circumstances and the assumptions involved.

On one hand, we can use the indefinite article, because we are merely talking about some email that has been sent. As Michael Rybkin mentioned in an earlier answer, sentences like these are perfectly grammatical and frequently heard in everyday speech:

  • I took an apple out of the fruit bowl.
  • I bought a washing machine last week.
  • I sent a package to my uncle.
  • I sent an email to Mike two hours ago.

However, you're onto something when you mentioned that the site knows which email is being referred to. There are many possible situations where using the definite article would also be acceptable. One very simple one, often quoted in elementary grammar books, is that the item being alluded to has been previously mentioned.

Here is an apple. I took the apple out of the fruit bowl.

But this "previous mention" need not always be so obvious, explicit or immediate. For example, consider these snippets of dialogue between spouses:

Q: Hey, why is there only $200 left in our checking account?
A: Remember? I bought the washing machine last week.

Q: I didn't hear you leave. Where did you go?
A: To the post office; I sent the package to my uncle.

The first answer sounds fine, because we assume there is only one washing machine in the house. The second answer would be fine, too, if we can assume the couple may have had a dialogue a few days ago that went something like this:

Q: What's up with this big box on the counter?
A: It's a package for my uncle Ernie. His birthday is next week.

As for that last one, we can use the definite article there, too:

Q: Did you send that "save the date" notice to your cousin yet?
A: Yes, I sent the email to Mike two hours ago.

I could say "an email" just as easily as I can say "the email". In either case we know we are talking about an email that contains the "save the date" information.

As for your message, I think this sounds perfectly fine:

We’ve sent an email to address@gmail.com

However, the company could have also written:

We’ve sent the email to address@gmail.com

and I'd interpret that as:

We’ve sent the email [that we previously indicated would be sent] to address@gmail.com

However, we are not forced to use the definite article just because a forthcoming email may have been previously mentioned.


As a footnote, notice how no mention was ever made of the fruit bowl, but the word "the" sounds perfectly natural in that sentence.

  • 2
    Related to your footnote and the discussion about "the washing machine," I think the key element is that the listener can easily discern which specific object is under discussion. The couple can easily discern that the washing machine referenced is the one they own, since it was bought with their money and they presumably both know one was purchased recently. The fruit bowl is more interesting, since there might be more than one bowl of fruit in a home or building, but the context might make it clear there's a particular one nearby or a particular one the speaker usually gets fruit from. – jpmc26 Apr 3 '18 at 2:29
  • To summarise, use the when only one thing is likely. – CJ Dennis Apr 3 '18 at 7:51
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You use the article "the" when you're talking about something that is known already (for example you talked about it before) or for something specific or particular that you're supposed to know about it, and you use the article "a" or "an" when you're talking about that is unknown or for something non-specific or non particular, that you're not supposed to know about it.

Now talking about your specific case:

If you have not been told before that an email is going to be sent to you, then the usage of the indefinite article "an" is the correct choice.

But

if you have been told before that an email will be sent to you, then in the second time they already should say

"The email has been sent to address "gmail.com".

It does not matter that the site knows abour its email because it should talk also according to your knowledge (compare monolog wilith dialogue), and if you have not been told before about an email, they shouldn't use the definite article "the".

In the end of the day, typical sites are not always the best place to learn English Grammar.

  • So, An email has been sent to the address gmail.com. is not correct? – Michael Rybkin Apr 2 '18 at 14:30
  • In my humble opinion, as I explained, both can be correct and incorrect. It depends on the context. I explained it in details when the article "a" is the correct one and when the article "the" is the correct one. Take a look in my answer and if something isn't clear I'll do my best to explain it. – Judicious Allure Apr 2 '18 at 14:32
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    Well, from what I can read in the OP's question, they didn't say the email. They said an email. And the OP is asking why an was used instead of the. – Michael Rybkin Apr 2 '18 at 14:45
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    That's 100% right but it is compatible with my explanation for his question. I added more elucidation to my answer now to address directly the OP's question. – Judicious Allure Apr 2 '18 at 14:59
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    +1 for "typical sites are not always the best place to learn". Plenty of websites will "forget" they already mentioned the email, and call it "an email" later. – Darren Ringer Apr 2 '18 at 22:54
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Either one can be used depending on the context. If you're wondering why they have specifically chosen to use an instead of the, then here's the reasoning. What exactly has been sent to you? Well, an email has been sent to you as opposed to something else. So, they didn't send you a computer. They didn't send you a washing machine. They sent you an email! This is like a notification message telling you that something has been sent to you and that something is an email.

This would be similar to a situation where you go out and buy a car and then later that day you say to one of your friends that you bought a car today. There are millions of things in the world that you can buy. But you bought a car as opposed to a washing machine or a house. And there are millions of cars in the world too. You just happen to have bought one of them. That's why in this context you would be referring to the car that you bought as a car and as the car.

  • I am sorry but I really don't understand your answer. To your opinion using of indefinite article is for ejection nouns that are not told? If I say an email why should I think that it is a computer rather than email? I think as the professional books say and as they their term-names say: "Definite" and "indefinite article" that in the end of the day means that the articles are for specific / particular or for non specific / non particular noun. Let me know even one serious reference that supports your opinion. – Judicious Allure Apr 2 '18 at 15:10
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    The process of signing up has been successfully completed. An email containing further instructions has been sent to the address someone@somewhere.com. -- does this example sound fine to you? We're using an because we're talking about any old email. Do you understand what I'm saying? – Michael Rybkin Apr 2 '18 at 15:23
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In this specific case (a company tells you they sent you an/the email):

If the email has previously been referred to: the

We will sent you an email with information about logging in. The email has been sent.

If the email has not been referred to: an

We sent an email about logging in.

  • The "already referred to" litmus test is a very general one, and it doesn't really cover all the reasons one might choose the instead of a or an. The Louvre is a museum in the city of Paris. That sentence uses the definite article two times; it is grammatical and understandable, but neither one of us had mentioned the Louvre or Paris yet. – J.R. Apr 2 '18 at 14:19
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    @J.R.Yes, but I answered only to his specific case. Louvre is a name, email isn't. If you want me to, I can add all reasons why one would use either one of the articles, but I only wanted to answer for the word email used in that context. – MartinW Apr 2 '18 at 14:20
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    I find this answer misleading, but that's just me. – Lucian Sava Apr 2 '18 at 14:31
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    @LucianSava - It's not just you... – J.R. Apr 2 '18 at 14:32
  • @J.R. Could you please give me a situation in this specific case where my rule is incorrect? – MartinW Apr 4 '18 at 9:07
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From the company's point of view, they send many emails and only one is going to you.

We’ve sent an email to address@gmail.com.

We’ve sent one of our many emails to address@gmail.com.

When context makes it likely that only one thing is meant, you can use the.

The house was cold last night!

Which house? The speaker's house, or the house that they spent the night in.

I tripped and hit my head on the ground.

The entire solid part of the earth's surface is called the ground.

The earth is the planet where we live.

There is only one Earth, but many planets. I've said which planet which is why the planet is correct, although a different effect is given by using a planet:

The earth is a planet where we live.

Our planet is not so special because there are lots of planets.

I just got the email!

I was expecting it; it's a noteworthy email.

I just got an email!

I probably wasn't expecting it, or I was expecting several emails and one arrived.

Back to the company. If they told you they were going to send you an email beforehand, they could then say:

We’ve sent the email to address@gmail.com.

We’ve sent the email we previously told you about to address@gmail.com.

So, the is used when:

  • there is only one of that object in everyday use
    • the ground

    • the sky

  • there is only one associated with the speaker (the house, the head, the train)
    • I got hit on the head

    • The train was late today

  • the object has been previously mentioned
    • I will send you an email. The email will tell you how to log in to your account.

Note: it can change from one to another in the natural course:

The house was cold last night! (speaker association)
Why was the house cold? (previously mentioned)

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