Dear Moderators,

Could you shed some light on the meaning and function of indefinite articles before the names of jobs?

I know that when we say, for example, I need a pen this means that I need just one pen and any pen i.e not a specific one. But what about a sentence like the one below.
He is a builder . Does the "a" here have the same meaning as the "a" in my earlier sentence?

I wish I could make myself clear.
Original Post
Hello, Mido:

Yes, you need the ‘a’ before ‘builder,’ just as you need the ‘a’ before ‘pen.’ The indefinite article is necessary with singular count nouns in a sentence like yours.

You are probably thinking of sentences like these:

He is (the) president of the United States.
He is (the) conductor of the City Symphony Orchestra.
She is (the) principal of the local high school.
She is (the) first violist in the orchestra.
He was (the) pitcher in the winning game.
She was (the) mayor of the town from 2003-2006.

In each of these, the person described holds a unique position. There is only one of him or her. In addition, there could be a title connected with each of these.

When you say, ‘He is a builder,’ he is not a unique builder, nor does he have a title. You might omit the ‘a’ in a sentence like this:

John Smith, builder of the tallest building in the world, has retired.
Thanks a lot, Rachel.

To sum it up, the indefinite articles with the names of jobs play the same role as with any other singular countable noun. Right?
Not quite.

A singular count noun needs an article in front of it, or another determiner in front of it. Thus, we don't normally say sentences like, 'He is builder/ She is teacher,' etc.

But there are exceptions, as I explained in my previous posting. One of these exceptions could be to refer to the occupation of someone
who holds a unique position. There is only one of him or her. In addition, there could be a title connected with each of these.

Thus, you might have sentences like these:

He is president of the United States.
He is conductor of the City Symphony Orchestra.
She is principal of the local high school.
She is first violist in the orchestra.
He was pitcher in the winning game.
She was mayor of the town from 2003-2006.
John Smith, builder of the town of Springfield, died.
Helen Jones, hairdresser to the stars, has opened a new salon.

The occupations in the sentences above could be titles, or close to titles in meaning.

This use of no articles with nouns describing occupations is not so usual. You know the rules for articles. This is an exception.
Hello Rachel,

In one of your examples above, "John Smith, builder of the town of Springfield, died". Does it mean John Smith is/was(btw, should I use is or was here?) the only builder of the town of Springfield? If he was one of the builders, do we need to say "a builder of..."?

Thank you.
Hello Rachel,

In one of your examples above, "John Smith, builder of the town of Springfield, died". Does it mean John Smith is/was(btw, should I use is or was here?) the only builder of the town of Springfield? If he was one of the builders, do we need to say "a builder of..."?

Thank you.
You are right in sensing ambiguity, Alexwlh. If we use 'builder' here, we don't know whether John Smith was the only builder or not.

Here's a place where it would be much better to use an article: 'the' builder if he was the only one, and 'a builder' or 'one of the builders' if he was one of a group.

If the adjective phrase is expanded to an adjective clause, in this case we would have to say 'was,' since John Smith died.

But in another sentence:

  • John Smith, who is/was a/the builder of Homestead Towers, is speaking at City Hall tonight,

    it depends on the meaning.

    If there is a complete clause, as in my new sentence above, then 'builder' does need an article.

    However, if the noun is not 'builder' but a recognized public office, the article could be omitted:

  • Bill Clinton, who was (the) president from 1992-2000, is now running a large charitable foundation.
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