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definite articles in Prepositional phrases

What's up with the definite article in prepositional phrases like "ann an sgoil" and "ann am muga"? The translation exercise demands an indefinite article ("in a school, in a mug") in English. Is this something about that distinction being neutralised in certain contexts? Is it a mistake? (Surely not!)

December 14, 2019



You may want to read the Akerbeltz ann an article, it explains it nicely.


  • an, am, ann an, ann am – simple in, in a, without definite article,
  • anns an, anns a’, sa(n) + lenition (in plural: anns na, sna + h- before vowels) – in the with definite article.


There is no definite article in ann an (even though the second an looks like one). An has many meanings in Scottish (the, their, does…?, is…?, in, and others depending on context).

Here it means in, and the whole ann an/ann am basically just means in too.

Historically it’s something like there in, in-it in, or just double in-in – the in part got doubled because single an (which comes from Old Irish i, a + eclipsis¹) got mixed with the definite article an:

  • am bàta could mean both in a boat and the boat,
  • am faclair could mean in a dictionary and the dictionary

so to disambiguate it people started saying ann am bàta (there, in a boat; in-in a boat), ann am faclair (there, in a dictionary).

On the other hand, before the definite article the preposition changes to anns and it occurs only once: anns a’ bhàta (or sa bhàta) for in the boat and anns an fhaclair (san fhaclair) for in the dictionary (no need to double it, the form anns makes it unambiguous).

There are many discussions about it already, see:

¹ a consonant mutation, like lenition, but one that voiced voiceless consonants (ie. changed /t/ to /d/, /p/ to /b/, /f/ to /v/, etc.), and nasalized voiced ones (/d/ to /n/, /b/ to /m/, etc.); it did not disappear in Irish, so there you have i mbád /ə maːd/ ‘in a boat’, i bhfoclóir /ə vokloːr’/ ‘in a dictionary’, and an bàd /ə baːd/ ‘the boat’, an foclóir /ə fokloːr’/ ‘the dictionary’ without ambiguity and the preposition is not doubled

EDIT: I fixed a pretty big error in my comment. pàirc is feminine so ‘the park’ is obviously a’ phàirc. Changed the example to masc. bàta and faclair for which am bàta and am faclair work both as the boat/dictionary and in a boat/dictionary.


Ah! Lovely, and thanks for the link, and definitely not TLDR. Those grammar pages are great but I hadn't found that one, and I obviously hadn't searched the threads very efficiently either. Sorry. Tonight I will sleep, because these are the sorts of things that keep geeks like me awake. And I have feathered my linguistic nest with a bit more about Gaelic specifically and compound prepositions in general. Hooray!


Hehe, I meant the first 2 bullet points to be the TLDR part, not the entire post, didn’t mark that well enough. ;-)

And, to be honest, it took me surprisingly long to find the ann an page on Akerbeltz too…

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