I’m having some trouble understanding ”a/an”.

In sentences like this one:

”A gunman entered my store and held a gun to my head.”

What is ”a” really telling me as a reader about the gunman and the gun?That it is one, non-specfic, gunman holding one, non-specific, gun to my head? Or is ”a” in this sentence merely expressing the quantity; that it is ”one” gunman holding ”one” gun?


In this case, the main function of 'a' is introducing new elements to the narrative. Presumably, there has been no mention of this gunman up to now. The reader is unaware of his existence. Using 'a' serves to make the reader aware of the first appearance of this one person and the one item he is carrying. Having introduced these elements, it can then be switched to 'the'. For example, the next sentence might be something like: "The gunman demanded money and pointed the gun in my face". Using 'a' in the second sentence would now be incorrect because these elements have already been established in the narrative and the reader is aware of them.

  • Great explanation, thank you! ”The gunman demanded the cashier to open the cash register.” - this is a later part of the text and here ”the” is used in front of ”cashier” and ”cash register”, even though neither has been mentioned before in the text. Maybe you can tell me why ”the” is natural here, even though it is the first mention of both the cashier and the cash register. Thanks in advance! – Mixtran2 Jul 15 '20 at 14:04
  • Now that the setting has been established, the reader understands obvious things in the surroundings. In a store, things like the counter, the till, etc are taken for granted as obvious elements of the setting. Something unusual or unexpected would again be marked with 'a'. For example, "The store had a secret alarm bell behind the counter, and the clerk pushed it without the gunman realizing". – kandyman Jul 15 '20 at 15:03
  • Oh, okay! So, basically ”the” is also used with things that are obvious in the context? In that sentence, ”the cashier” refers to a specific cashier, namely the cashier of the previously mentioned store? – Mixtran2 Jul 15 '20 at 16:35
  • Yes, in general, 'the' is used to refer to things which have been already introduced or things which are understood, while 'a' introduces new things or limits the number of items. – kandyman Jul 15 '20 at 16:41

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