Prefer "a" as the standard determiner for nouns

  • 18 January 2023
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In English (and this entire discussion applies pretty much to Dutch as well), there are many alternatives for expressing that a rule applies to all cases. Among these alternatives, it is convenient to choose a simple indefinite article (a or an - click here for the difference).

“A client ...” means: “Each time a client comes along who spends …”:

Prefer: Rather than:

A client who spends over € 50,000 in a given year

must be assigned a Personal Coach.

Every client who spends ...
All clients who spend ...
Clients who spend ...
Each client who spends ...
Any client who spends ...

Why?

The alternatives really mean exactly the same thing. But if you stick with a(n)…,

  • Your readers do not need to switch between all these alternatives and worry if perhaps the differences mean something.
  • A rulebase with many rules is easier to scan through if you go for uniformity.
  • As a writer, you do not need to make a choice between alternatives that mean the same thing anyway.

If you have 2 times a, usually one of these must be replaced by the:

Write: Avoid:
The destination port of a flight booking must be specified. A destination port of a flight booking must be specified.

If there are no conditions at all, a sounds strange. Prefer each in these cases:

Good: Less good:
Each Gold Card customer must be assigned a personal coach. A Gold Card customer must be assigned a personal coach.

With a(n) …, you write in the singular. As a result, you are often confronted with he or she:

Prefer: Rather than:
An incoming passenger must pass ID control before she is allowed to pass customs. Incoming passengers must pass ID control before they are allowed to pass customs.

One simple gender-neutral strategy is to switch regularly between he and she, just randomly choosing one or the other. You can also write he or she but this makes a rule harder to read.

… is the fact that … is a set phrase that always contains the, not a:

Write: Avoid:
A flight booking is the fact that a client books a flight. A flight booking is a fact that a client books a flight.

 


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