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English Lesson 16: Correct Use of A and An

July 5th, 2008

a-an-english-grammar.jpgTrying to figure out whether to use the indefinite article a or an before a noun can be tricky for inexperienced English users. Many people seem to think that you should use a before a consonant and an before a vowel, but it is not quite that simple. The actual rule is that a is used before a consonant sound and an before a vowel sound — these do not always match up with the letter itself! For example, one of the most common mistakes I have been seeing recently is the use of “a hour” instead of “an hour”. The latter is correct because the word hour actually begins with an o (vowel) sound; the h is silent. Conversely, we would say “a Ouija board” instead of “an Ouija board” because Ouija is pronounced with a w (consonant) sound.

This rule also extends to acronyms. For example, I have lost count of the number of times that I have cringed whenever I see someone write “a HYIP” on a forum or blog. This should be written “an HYIP” because the letter H is pronounced with an a (vowel) sound. However, if we were to write the acronym out we would write “a High Yield Investment Program” because the consonant h sound is now being pronounced as part of the word high.

Acronyms: A vs. An Usage Before A Given Letter

Because this rule can be tricky, especially for people who are hearing impaired and therefore may be unaccustomed to hearing what the letters sound like, I have attempted to clarify things below by first listing all of the letters that are initially spoken with a vowel sound and therefore require an before them if the letter is used in an acronym. All other letters are initially spoken with a consonant sound and will require a; these are listed in the second line below:

If the acronym begins with these letters, use an: A, E, F, H, I, L, M, N, O, R, S, X

If the acronym begins with these letters, use a: B, C, D, G, J, K, P, Q, T, U, V, W, Y, Z

For example, we would write an FBI agent, an SEO, and an LP member, but we would write a YMCA member, a QC inspector, and a USB port. Now we can look at some examples from the Internet where a and an have been used incorrectly:

Incorrect: New teeth in a hour is worth smiling about — headline of an online newspaper article at living.scotsman.com

Correct: New teeth in an hour is worth smiling about

Incorrect: I’m a idiot for buying this book! — reviewer “Kimberly” at search.barnesandnoble.com

Correct: I’m an idiot for buying this book!

Incorrect: Our Engineering and Technical division is currently working with a leading producer of steel related products in Plymouth, MN which has an immediate need for an Quality Technician. — job posting at aol.careerbuilder.com

Correct: Our Engineering and Technical division is currently working with a leading producer of steel related products in Plymouth, MN which has an immediate need for a Quality Technician.

Incorrect: I certify that I am an United States resident licensed to practice law in Wisconsin, and that all of the information I have provided is true. — Notary Public application for Wisconsin attorneys

Correct: I certify that I am a United States resident licensed to practice law in Wisconsin, and that all of the information I have provided is true.

Quick Summary: If in doubt about whether to use a or an, simply pronounce the word that is to appear after the article. If the first sound pronounced is a vowel, use an; otherwise, use a.


31 Responses to “English Lesson 16: Correct Use of A and An”

  1. comment number 1 by: Ldo

    what about an umbrella? isnt that an mmm sound? and unique. a unique idea. isnt that a hard U sound?

  2. comment number 2 by: Karlonia

    @Ldo:

    For umbrella, it’s just a short u sound, so it would be “an umbrella”.

    For unique, the u is pronounced as if it were a single letter (sounds like the word “you”), so the initial pronunciation is actually a Y sound. Therefore, we would say “a unique” even though having the two vowels together might seem a little odd at first.

  3. comment number 3 by: Kjersti

    Hi,
    I think that this sounds so wrong: “business objects - an SAP company”. But you would say it is correct? You can see the full use of it here: http://www.businessobjects.com/ I have been searching the internet for answers, hope you can take som time to explain this to me.

  4. comment number 4 by: RT

    Hi,
    What would be correct to use for “year”?

    a year

    or

    an year?

  5. comment number 5 by: Karlonia

    @Kjersti:

    Yes, this does seem rather odd because people usually don’t write it out that way, but if you actually say “S-A-P company” out loud, you can hear the short “e” sound (as in “elephant”) when you pronounce the S. This is why we use “an” here.

    @RT:

    It’s “a year”. The y is pronounced as a consonant.

  6. comment number 6 by: Leagandanghari

    thanks very much for this! :)

  7. comment number 7 by: Karanga Karimba

    THANKS U VERY MUCH FOR YOUR LESSON ON ! I AGAIN REQUEST YOU TO KINDLY GIVE US A LESSSON ON . THANKS!

  8. comment number 8 by: sadafkazmi

    i have a question? why do we put an before vowels?

  9. comment number 9 by: Karlonia

    @sadafkazmi:

    This is done primarily for ease of speaking. If we used the article “a” instead of “an” before vowels, it would create a situation where we have two vowel sounds being pronounced in succession, which is rather awkward. So the extra consonant n is added to make “an”, therefore avoiding this problem.

    Other languages do similar things to avoid the “two vowel” problem. For example, in French the articles le and la (both of which mean “the”) are written as l’ if the following word begins with a vowel sound. In other situations, the spellings are not changed but a consonant sound is pronounced after the first word to form a liason that makes the words easier to say, as in the phrases aux hommes and aux arbres. In both phrases a “z” sound is pronounced at the end of aux even though this is not indicated in the spelling.

    Fortunately, in English when we form liasons between two words or even within a single word (as in “lawyer”, “bowyer”, and “tobacconist”), the added consonant is usually written literally, which makes the pronunciation more obvious.

  10. comment number 10 by: melicia cinco

    Ms. Guth _________ rather not invest that money in the
    stock market.
    A. has to
    B. could
    C. would
    D. must

  11. comment number 11 by: melicia cinco

    The rate of ___________ has been fluctuating wildly
    this week.
    A. money
    B. bills
    C. coins
    D. exchange

  12. comment number 12 by: melicia cinco

    Each of the Olympic athletes ____________ for months,
    even years.
    A. have been training
    B. were training
    C. has been training
    D. been training

  13. comment number 13 by: Karlonia

    @melicia cinco:

    I’m not sure if you’re looking for the answers to those questions or not, but I’ll go ahead and answer them anyway.

    For comment #10: C. would
    For #11: D. exchange
    For #12: C. has been training :)

  14. comment number 14 by: Anonymous

    What about when the a/an is followed by an adjective? For instance “This turned out to be (a/an) long evening.” It sounds right saying “a long evening”, but when you diagram the sentence, it doesn’t fit right. (This has been bothering me for awhile.)

  15. comment number 15 by: kjsosi

    thanks its very helpful…

  16. comment number 16 by: Lovella

    Very helpful!!

    Thanks a lot

  17. comment number 17 by: Blase

    I now understand the use of “a” and “an”… but am still feel that the phrase “an historical moment” sounds more correct than “a historical moment”. Even thought the “h” can be heard… it still sounds wrong.

  18. comment number 18 by: John

    I cringe when people say “an historic event.” Please make them stop ; ).

  19. comment number 19 by: spud

    At school we were taught to use “an” before words starting with a,e,i,o,u and h

    use “a” before the rest

    So - an hotel, a car, an orange car (I assume)

    Seems fairly straight forward

    ..and I hate those who commit the sin - “the reason why”

  20. comment number 20 by: shane

    Can we use the article an before a collective noun…..for example….is she an american?

  21. comment number 21 by: monika

    what should we use before extra-a/an

  22. comment number 22 by: Karlonia

    @monika:

    Use “an” — “extra” begins with a vowel sound.

    @shane:

    Yes, “an American” is correct. The collective noun part becomes more of an issue when we look at singular vs. plural verb forms, and there are differences between British and American usage. For example, in the USA we would say “an army is”, but people in the UK will often say “an army are”. The difference is in how we treat collective nouns like army, community, company, etc. But the rules for “a” and “an” are the same in either case.

  23. comment number 23 by: mk

    what is the correct thing to say- ‘an ear’ or ‘a ear’?also pl clarify the reason for doing so.’ear’ doesnt begin with the vowel sound of’ e’as in egg or elephant,so shouldnt it be ‘a ear’ but ‘an ear’ sounds better.

    pl also check if the following vowel sounds are correct:

    a as in axe
    e as in egg
    i as in igloo or ice cream
    o as in orange
    u as in umbrella.
    thanks

  24. comment number 24 by: Joseph

    Is it correct to say a European?

  25. comment number 25 by: Karlonia

    @Joseph:

    Yes, this is correct — “European” is actually pronounced with an initial “y” sound even though the first letter is a vowel. By contrast, saying “an European” would sound pretty awkward.

    @mk:

    Yes, it’s “an ear”. The “e” in this case is what is known as a “long” vowel sound as opposed to the “short” one in words like elephant, but it is still a legitimate vowel sound, so we use “an”. We only use “a” before the word if the first sound is actually a consonant.

    The vowel sounds in your list are correct; we would use “an” before all of these words.

  26. comment number 26 by: gune

    What is correct?
    an europeon ….. or a europeon …………..

  27. comment number 27 by: Anonymous

    The vowel sounds in your list are correct; we would use “an” before all of these words.

  28. comment number 28 by: emma

    is it correct if i say,i am married to an english?

  29. comment number 29 by: habib

    hi
    which is correct of following:
    a sports day
    or an sports day.
    if “a sports” day is correct, then how?
    because “sports” is pronounced with vowel “i” then why we can not use “an” before “sports”.

  30. comment number 30 by: AD

    Thank you. The opening line of your article answered my question. :)

  31. comment number 31 by: DW

    “A sports day” should be correct as the word ’sports’ is pronounced with a ’s’ sound and also it’s not beginning with a vowel.

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