A Useful Reminder About ‘An’

By Maeve Maddox

English has two forms of the indefinite article: a and an.

In modern usage, the form a is used in front of words that begin with a consonant sound; an is used in front of words that begin with a vowel sound.

The following uses of an are nonstandard in modern English:

OK, I admit it, I don’t see why the iPad would be an useful device.

Plot is an unique feature that indicates the address of the place.

Found an useful paper on grid generation

Fastest way to find an unique element out of given numbers

We are an uniform based school and the design of our uniforms has been a careful and consultative process with executive, staff, student and community.

It may be that writers who put an in front of unique or useful have misunderstood the rule; perhaps they think that an goes in front of any word that begins with u, regardless of how the u is pronounced.

Although the letter u usually represents a vowel sound, it does not always do so. Such words as umbrella, undertaker, and ugly do begin with a vowel sound, [uh]. These words should be preceded by an:

an umbrella
an undertaker
an ugly dog

Sometimes, u represents a consonant sound that incorporates the y sound heard at the beginning of yellow:

unique [yoo-neek]
useful [yoos-ful]
usual [yoo-zyoo-l]

I’ve never heard anyone pronounce the word an in front of one of these words, although I suppose that somewhere in the world someone may talk that way. For a speaker who pronounces the word unique as [uh-neek] or [oo-neek], there would be some justification for writing “an unique feature.”

What I think is that some speakers say “a useful paper” but go to write it and think it “looks funny” with a instead of an.

In the case of an before a word that begins with u, let your ear guide you:

a useful device, but an unusual device
a unique feature, but an ultra-interesting feature
a useful paper, but an undervalued paper
a unique element, but an unknown element
a uniform-based school, but an unconventional school

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12 Responses to “A Useful Reminder About ‘An’”

  • Oliver Lawrence

    For similar reasons, it’s “a hotel” not “an hotel”.

  • Scott Mellon

    Another case where this goes wrong is with letters of the alphabet. “I want to but a S” because s is a consonant. But it’s pronounced “ess”.

  • thebluebird11

    Does this phenomenon occur when words begin with the letter H? There are some words where the H is silent, so the word in fact begins with a vowel sound (honor, honest). So if the issue is that (hopefully only) ESL speakers would try to make a “rule” out of when to use a/an, going by the actual letter, versus its sound, then maybe they also think that since H is a consonant, you always put “a” in front of it (a honor, a honest person). Also, I think that there are languages/dialects (I’m thinking maybe Cockney and/or others?) where they chop off the H sound, such as “I don’t like to wear an ‘at,” (instead of hat), which calls for “an,” and then they tend to ADD an H sound where it does not belong, such as “I ate a happle,” (instead of apple), which would normally call for “a.” Anyone here know what I’m talking about?

  • Bill

    I’ve never heard of people adding an aspirated h to words like “apple” but that’s my ignorance. It wasn’t until too long ago that it was fine to drop the h in “historical” when used as a noun: An historical event. It’s considered wrong now, but if you try saying that way it rolls off the tongue nicely.

  • Maeve

    This post about the use of “an” in front of words that begin with the letter “u” has brought in a deluge of emails asking about the use of “an” in front of words that begin with “h.” I will revisit this topic soon. Meanwhile, here’s a link to a previous post on the subject: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/a-historic-or-an-historic-event/

  • Jason Pos

    “an universal” gets 373000 hits on Google.

  • thebluebird11

    @Bill: I think the addition of the H (as in happle) is a Caribbean thing, Jamaica, Bahamas, etc. Of course not everyone from those areas speaks that way. I was only in Jamaica once for a week and it was a LONG time ago. At the time, the last thing on my mind was analyzing accents!

  • t

    @Maeve: Another thing to take into consideration, as you touched on, is how people pronounce that initial U. I don’t know how other languages treat that letter at the beginning of a word. In English, as you said, it’s sometimes “yoo” and sometimes “uh.” In other languages, maybe it is pronounced “oo.” I’m thinking like Uganda…in English we pronounce it Yoo-GAN-dah, but how do Ugandans pronounce it? If they are accustomed to pronouncing it “oo” and then follow rules of English (an before a vowel), they would say, for example, an Ugandan (“an oogandan”) official. Here in the US we would probably say A Ugandan official. I know that Uruguayans pronounce their country (something like) “oo-roo-wye,” even though in English we say Yoo-roo-gway or Yoo-roo-gwye.

  • Ian George Bolton

    The indefinite article: _a_ is used before consonant sounds
    _a bus_,
    _a cat_,
    _a dog_.

    The indefinite article: _an_ is used before vowel sounds
    _an apple_,
    _an elephant_,
    _an insect_,
    _an umbrella_,
    _an orange_.

    Abbreviations said as individual letters which begin with A, E, F, H, I, L, M, N, O, R, S, or X are pronounced as vowel sounds. They are therefore preceded by _an_, rather than_a_

    _He’s an NGF rep_
    _give me an H, give an E, give me an L, give me an L, give me an O. What have we got?

    Sound and spelling do not always coincide, if the sound is really consonant,
    for example “one” and “unit” begin with vowels, but the initial sounds are those of the consonants “w” and “y” in “won” and “you” therefore we say:

    _a unit_,
    _a use_,
    _a utility_,
    _a useful thing_,
    _a unique object_,
    _a European_,
    _a university_,
    _a one time thing_,
    _a one-eyed dog_.

    _An_ may be used before _h_ if the _h_ is not sounded (silent _h_) for example,
    _an honor_,
    _an hour_,
    _an heir_,
    _an honest man_,

    but

    _a horse_,
    _a house_,
    _a hat_.

  • Steven

    I also see the misuse of a/an when dealing with acronyms, such as ones that start with letter such as ‘S’, ‘N’, or ‘F’, such as SEI or NSA or FBI. These are pronounced as if they began with an e (eh sound), and thus should use ‘an’, but I constantly see them written along with the article ‘a”. Often, this is with ESL speakers/writers, so I think it is either a misunderstanding of the rule or they were taught the rule incorrectly, but I see it very often with native English speakers, as well. I’m a technical writer, so I deal with a lot of acronyms, and see it all the time, and it has kind of become a pet peeve of mine.

  • Erica

    Further to the comment by @t, my initial reaction to Maeve’s non-standard examples (e.g. “an useful”) was that they may have been written by a native French speaker. In French, the letter ‘u’ at the beginning of a word is always (I believe) pronounced “oo”, and thus treated like any other vowel. So they might naturally apply the same rule and use the ‘an’ article. Beyond that, I can’t imagine why any English speaker would say/write “an useful”; it’s very strange. Is there anyone who thinks this sounds right? Is it a regional pronunciation? I’m just curious. 🙂

  • Linda

    As an editor, I see A and An used inappropriately much of the time by writers of Fantasy or Science Fiction. These writers seem to believe that living in another world means abandoning proper English and grammar for their readers. I’m with Steve, I always comment on the proper use of grammar makes the story flow smoother form paragraph.

    If there are two many A dogs and An umbrellas in a paragraph, I, the reader tend to stop reading the story. This is true of all grammar and punctuation.

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