I gave him a paper to read.

I am really uneasy about this sentence.

The thing which makes me upset, is "a paper" in this sentence.

I had read in Wren & Martin long ago. A paper is wrong. A piece or sheet of paper is right, I think here the word "paper" is differently used. Maybe that's another thing. Well, we have also read in our previous classes that we cannot use indefinite articles with "uncountable nouns". Therefore, this thing does confuse me.

  • 5
    A newspaper? A term paper?
    – user3169
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 17:19
  • 4
    Paper: a sheet of paper (sic) with information written or printed on it
    – Glorfindel
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 17:20
  • 1
    I have read this sentence in a book, that is named as Practical English&Usage by Michael Swan. I am very confused. Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 17:21
  • 2
    Some more usages of this: Giving a talk at a conference or a formal meeting is often called "presenting a paper." Before computers and copiers, you would formally give the organizers a written document. An "exam paper" means either the document containing the questions, or your written answers. "A white paper" is a document stating the official policy of a government, or organization, and "a green paper" contains proposals for consultation - these were originally printed on white and green coloured paper, to make it obvious that the green coloured version was not the final document.
    – alephzero
    Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 6:20
  • 1
    Possible duplicate of "A paper", is this usage correct? Or should I say "a sheet of paper"? Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 1:29

5 Answers 5


From the context, I take the paper as a piece of writing usually on an academic or official subject as in

They published a landmark paper in 1995.

Or it can refer to a piece of writing that is done for a course at a school. As in

He handed in a paper [=essay] about the nesting habits of birds.

The teacher was busy grading papers.

In either sense as you can infer from the examples, paper is a count noun.

Paper is noncount when it refers to the material that is used in the form of thin sheets for writing or printing on, wrapping things, etc as in

We'll need pens, glue, and some paper.

Be sure to print/write the letter on good paper.

  • 3
    "From the context"? or from the presence of the indefinite article?
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 18:33
  • 9
    The words that come just before and after a word or sentence is called the context in which a word can make sense. It includes indefinte articles because they're words, too.
    – Yuri
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 19:03
  • My mistake, I was thinking of the figurative meaning of "context": the situation in which something happens : the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 19:12
  • 1
    "Paper" could also mean "newspaper" in this context.
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 23:10
  • You're right though it's not really idiomatic for paper in the sense of a newspaper to be preceded by an indefinite article. In the sense of a newspaper, you normally see that in the local paper, the morning paper, the papers. HostileFork pointed it out well in his answer.
    – Yuri
    Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 4:16

As others have said, it depends on what is meant by "paper."

If the speaker means a sheet of paper (or a slip of paper, or a note written on a piece of blue paper), then you are right – it's not a very good sentence, and it's an awkward use of the indefinite article.

However, if the speaker means an academic paper (or a published paper, or a journal article), then the sentence is perfectly fine. The word paper is often used to describe publications of this sort, and the use of the indefinite article is spot on.

In other words, when it comes to

I gave him a paper to read

I wouldn't say that if I was handing someone the note on the left, but it would be a very ordinary thing to say if I was passing along the sheaf on the right.

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  • 5
    "A paper" or "the paper" can also mean a newspaper, as another possibility in this vein.
    – Paul
    Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 14:13

I gave him a paper to read.

Context would drive the understanding of this sentence.

In an academic setting, this would be a normal thing to say, with the assumption that it was a "research paper" of some kind. This might be said about the exchange of such a paper from one professor to another.

A teacher might also say something like "I gave him a paper to grade"...perhaps giving an assistant a paper that was a student's homework or essay.

Without context, at one point in history it would have likely been normal to assume this meant "a newspaper". Although saying "a paper" (some newspaper from an unknown time) would be a less common occurrence than saying "I gave him the paper to read" (the current day's newspaper). This default interpretation is probably diminishing most places as people aren't getting their news from printed paper generally.

In general, it would be a bit strange to say this if it was just talking about a sheet of paper with writing on it. You would have to be more specific ("I gave him a letter" or "I gave him a flyer" or "I gave him the furniture assembly instructions" etc.)


Here are a bunch of variations of the sentence.

I gave him a paper to read.

I gave him some paper to read.

I gave him the paper to read.

I gave him the papers to read.

I gave him paper to read.

I gave him some papers to read.

I gave him papers to read.

These are all correct English sentences that have different meanings. Some of them are ... strange.

In (1), "a paper" refers to some document (academic or otherwise). Its specific identity is not the central point of the sentence, the act of giving is more central.

In (2), "some paper" refers to pieces of paper. It is strange, because when paper has writing on it, usually the writing is the important part; "some paper" has the connotation that the important part is the actual sheets. I'd expect nearby sentences to talk about how the paper would be written on (printers maybe?)

In (3), "the paper" could either refer to a newspaper, or some specific document. If a newspaper it would probably be a physical object; if a specific document, it could be on a computer or a file emailed. The document is specific, not general, as in "a paper"; either I'd expect the identity or description of this document from other nearby sentences, or it would be a sentence defining the importance of the document where the central point of the sentence is "the paper".

In (4), we are now talking about more than one document. They again are specific, and are either defined nearby, or this sentence puts them at the forefront and the important piece of information being conveyed in the sentence.

In (5), the meaning is nearly identical to (2). Using it like (3) or (2) feels wrong: contrast this with (7).

In (6), the added plural in paper means we go from sheets of paper, to many documents (or newspapers). This is the plural of (1); the papers are used interchangeably, we aren't talking about specific documents, but rather an undifferentiated sample of some population of documents.

(7) is a variation on (6) or (4). The papers feel less "anonymous" than (6), but less specific than (4). Contrast this with (5). The plural here prevents it from being about sheets of paper, forcing it to be about documents. The lack of some/the makes it both less specific and less non-specific at the same time.


In some regional dialects, passing the newspaper to someone would be "I gave him the papers to read", as a newspaper is a bunch of papers. In other dialects, that would be strange, but recognizable.


Speaking briefly, paper is both an uncountable and countable noun.

When used as an uncountabl noun, it refers to a material that you usually use to write, print, or draw on. Of course, there are also other uses such as it's used for packing, cleaning, or making things. A few examples are as follows:

This bag is made of paper.

Please give me a pen and some paper.

Wrap it in paper.

He put it down on paper.

Paper is a countable noun when it bears something written, printed, or drawn on it such as a paper (newspaper), an academic or official piece of writing on a particular subject. a set of questions or answers in an examination, etc.

I gave him a paper to read.

The sentence is correct grammatically. Paper is often used as a short form of newspaper. Most probably, it means a newspaper in the sentence presented.

The sentence without the indefinite article 'an' will mean that you gave him a blank sheet of paper to read, which is quite funny. However, you can say 'You gave him the paperto read'.

  • Hello, I am thankful to all of you for your weighty discussion, and conversation. By the way, may I know about the resources, sites, books and different dictionaries? There was a link on a post where all these things were saved. If anyone knows so please add the link here. Thank you! Commented May 7, 2016 at 15:33

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