Using “a” and “an” Before Words

By Daniel Scocco

Raphael asks: When should I use “a” and when should I use “an” before the different words? For example, should I say “a hour” or “an hour?” I stumble over this everytime and dont’t know if I’m getting it right, as I’m not speaking and writing English natively.

The Rule

The rule states that “a” should be used before words that begin with consonants (e.g., b, c ,d) while “an” should be used before words that begin with vowels (e.g., a,e,i). Notice, however, that the usage is determined by the pronunciation and not by the spelling, as many people wrongly assume.

You should say, therefore, “an hour” (because hour begins with a vowel sound) and “a history” (because history begins with a consonant sound).

Similarly you should say “a union” even if union begins with a “u.” That is because the pronunciation begins with “yu”, which is a consonant sound.

Abbreviations

Deciding which version you should use with abbreviations is the tricky part. First of all you need to understand if the abbreviation is pronounced as a single word or letter by letter.

While we say “a light-water reactor,” the abbreviation is “an LWR.”

Similarly, you should use “an NBC reporter” (because “NBC” is pronounced “enbisi”) and “a NATO authority” (because “NATO” begins with a “ne” sound).

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


81 Responses to “Using “a” and “an” Before Words”

  • Rohit

    I never knew that the usage of ‘a’ and ‘an’ depends on pronunciation. And I really like your blog … keep up the good work. 🙂

  • Daniel

    Thanks Rohit. In fact this is the first post answering “readers’ questions.” If you have any feel free to ask us!

  • Maeve

    Daniel,
    Nice, clear explanation of a/an.

    Question: did you mean to write “yo” to represent the “y” sound in “union”?

    It’s tricky to represent sounds without using the phonetic alphabet, but I think something like “yuh” would be closer to the consonant sound of the letter Y.

    Hmm, come to think of it, most of us pronounce the “i” in “union” as if it were a consonant “y.” How would we spell that phonetically? Using a capital U to represent the long sound of “u,” maybe
    /yUn-yun/!

  • Daniel

    Maeve, thanks for taking the lead regarding the phonetic alphabet.

    I tried to research a bit, but indeed “yu” is closer to what I was trying to express :).

  • rich

    I’ve been wondering about this for a while, and why is ‘historian’ after ‘an’?
    It doesn’t start with a vowel sound, and yet all my history text books, articles etc use ‘an’…
    Or is that wrong?

  • Daniel

    rich, here is the answer for your questions (it comes from Wikipedia):

    “Some words beginning with the letter h have the primary stress on the second or later syllable. Pronouncing a as a schwa can diminish the sound of the schwa and melt into the vowel. Pronouncing it as a “long a” does not do this, but as the pronunciation cannot be prescribed, the word is spelled the same for either. Hence an may be seen in such phrases as “an historic”, “an heroic”, and “an hôtel of excellence” was the by-line in an advertisement in a New York City newspaper”

  • Leah

    I think you are right to say we use “an” depends on the sound.

    But, ‘u’ is a vowel, not right to say it has a consonant sound. “u” can make three sounds as in up, unit, put, which are short vowel, long vowel, and the third sound respectively

    We may say: use “an” before a word that begins with a short vowel sound?

  • Daniel

    Leah, I am not an expert with the phonetic alphabet, but it looks like “union” begins with a “yu” sound, and not a “u” one.

    I will research a bit and post what I find here.

  • skiper

    Great tips I didnt know that it depends on the pronunciation.

  • Roshawn

    Another top-notch post. I’m glad you thought of me when you wrote it. 😉

  • Karen

    Glad I found this blog (through Yaro).
    Where does the word ‘hotel’ fit in though. I have seen it written(and pronounced) as ‘an hotel’ where the ‘h’ is not sounded and ‘a hotel’ where it is.

  • Anonymous

    Become an Hero?

  • Matt

    Become a hero. Hero does not begin with a vowel sound; it begins with the consonant sound for H. The same should apply for hotel too. If you said hotel by itself and didn’t pronounce the H, it would sound like “otell”. That cannot be correct. I think it should be “a hotel” as in “a hoe tell everybody”!

  • Shankar Ganesh

    Articles usage is something I’ve mastered 🙂

    I was confused earlier about what article to use before Abbreviations, now it’s all clear, thanks to our teachers 🙂

  • missy leander

    a and an
    can be ________________________________
    use ex. a beautiful gown ,an elephant

  • siva

    wont and want different

  • yasmin

    i have come here to learn not to get confuge by their comments

  • sudhi

    your blog gives lotz of basic knowledge which most people doesn’t know. i really appreciate your efforts. all the best.

  • daniy

    Back then all I know was “a union” and “an hour” which used the exception of using “a” and “an” before words. It depends on how it pronounced. And now I know that “an NBC” and “an LWR” are also using the same exception. Thanks!

  • Brad Nevin

    Here is a good one: “Cindy has a MAT in Elementary Education” or “Cindy has an MAT in Elementary Education.”

    The answer depends on how you say it.

    I say it is “an MAT” because I am assuming that when you say the title you say each individual letter (M-A-T), like you would with MBA. But, a friend was saying it like the word “mat” and thought it was “a MAT.” To get the right answer, you need to know if people say each individual letter, or do people sound it out and say “mat.” Is anyone familiar with MAT and how you say it? It makes all the difference.

  • keo sath

    It is very clear explaination. I just know the using “a” or “an” . It not depends on vowels or consonants but also pronunciation.
    And would like to hear you more about “a” and “the”
    Thanks

  • ayesha

    i want english

  • Lana

    Daniel, what do you think about an E-Mail? I’ve seen “a”, “an”, and nothing at all. I usually use “an”, but please, correct me, if I am wrong.

  • Vishal

    I was never aware of this, awesome work man!!

  • edy purwaka

    geee….

    So far i went wrong when taught student in elementary school. I always thought that, an–> always followed by vowel.

    Lucky me, because i find this explaination.

  • zulaikha

    Even though I try to make myself understand, i still have a doubt on the rule about the word “union”, what I mean to say is that anyone can be mistaken thinking that union starts with U and not with yu, so there can be many such mistakes by the children relating to this rule,so I suggest you to give the examples giving more clear hints. I think it can help me a bit more. I will be pleased if you can answer me. thanks

  • sunayana dalnar

    I want to improve my english language.I thin that may english is not well. so please give me suggestion.Really!I need to improve english language.

  • Ma. Shiela M. Sabile

    I am a hardworking person, wiiling to undergo trainings. I want to enhance my knowledge in different fields of work. I want to meet different people with different walks of life.

  • Ma. Shiela M. Sabile

    I want to improve my English.

  • saeid

    I d like to live in American

  • Dens

    To Ma. Shiela M. Sabile:

    Hi. Where are you from?
    Well, i just saw your post here desiring to improve in English. I felt for you because we have the same interests. I just to know how you get started.

  • grace

    how and when to use “the” as article?

  • zohaib

    hi i am here to learn english

  • Danny

    A question. If you are using an abbreviation that you expect people to look at and pronounce the actual word it represents in their mind and not pronounce the letters of the abbreviation would you base the a/an article on what you expect the reader to think in their mind or be strict and go by how the letters of the abbreviation would sound. I think it is most natural to use what the sound the reader is probably imagining in their mind.

  • Abbas Kamali Nejad

    thank U very much

    with your site I can solve my problem in writing

    warmregards
    A- kamali Nejad
    IRAN – TEHRAN

  • Abbas Kamali Nejad

    Hi
    I can solve my problem in writing with your site

    tnx

    warmregards
    A – k- N
    IRAN – TEHRAN

  • saheem

    i am not good in writting english. all time i thinm that i am not writting in correct form. onthe other hand i am not known about the all rule of writting in english. I have strong determination for to do well. If it is helped i will be thanking to him.
    thans
    shaheen

  • cobe_buongbinh_1011

    I am not good in writting English.I need helping .Thank you a lot.

  • sya

    thanks 4 the explanation……..

  • lobna

    hiiiiiiiiiiiiiii I WOULD LIKE IMPROVE MY ENGLISH LANGUAGE WHAT IDO ? INEED ANSWER FOR THIS QUATION

  • Wyatt

    While we say “a light-water reactor,” the abbreviation is “an LWR.”

    Similarly, you should use “an NBC reporter” (because “NBC” is pronounced “enbisi”) and “a NATO authority” (because “NATO” begins with a “ne” sound).

    this is a contradiction to what you’re stating. Please explain this one, because the LWR doesn’t sound like a vowel to me.

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Wyatt, LWR starts with an “l”. I am not good at the phonetics alphabet, but that sound is similar to “ehl.” Do you see why it is a vowel sound?

  • Brad K.

    Wyatt, in common usage, NATO is pronounced as a word. ‘Nay-toe’. So the ‘A before consonant’ rule applies.

    LWT is an acronym, just like NATO, but it doesn’t look like a word, is not a common English word, so it is spelled out when pronounced. Ell-double-You-Are. The leading L is a consonant, true, but when you pronounce ‘Ell’ you have a vowel sound. Thus, ‘An before a vowel sound’.

    The rule goes by the sound of the word, not the strict classification of the first letter, whether that first letter is a vowel or a consonant.

    You noticed that the examples of ‘hour’ and ‘history’ require one to recall that when spoken, the leading ‘H’ of hour is silent, ‘hour’ is pronounced the same as ‘our’. Both ‘hour’ and ‘our’ expect an ‘An’ before it, since the rule applies to the spoken sound, in common usage.

    Another confusing term, like NATO, is ‘herb’, as in an herb garden, or garden herbs. Correct usage is to leave the ‘H’ silent, making it ‘an herb salad’. What gets confusing is the large number of people that mispronounce the word, making it sound like ‘Herb’ as in a short form of the name Herbert. If you are rattling off guy’s names, that would be a Sam or a Herb or a Willy. I have also heard the word “herb” pronounced “yarb”, which begins with a ‘Y’ sound, which common conventions agrees is a leading consonant sound. A herb (‘yarb’), a yes, a yellow spotted rhododendron – the ‘Y’ is a very versatile (or maybe just ambiguous) letter.

  • suda

    I do understand about using an with the vowel sounds. but what about the apple, why an apple not a apple? Is it because of the difficulty in saying a apple compare to an apple?

  • suda

    I do understand the rule of using a and an (with vowel sounds for the first letter of the word). My question is why the apple we use an apple not a apple? Is it because it’s difficult to pronounce a apple than an apple? Please give me a hint.

  • Suzy

    suda, because the “a” in apple is a vowel and it makes a vowel sound, so you use “an” before vowel sounds. the vowels are: a,e,i,o,u and sometimes y. and for people older than 40 sometimes “w” ! but i’m under 40! so i don’t know why.

  • nick

    thanks – I thought maybe the rule had changed since I was in school because I see the opposite usage of a and an so many times in newspapers – did newspaper style change or do they just get it wrong very often?

  • dennise evans

    nice explanation..now i understand..

  • chenna kesav

    I want to know about the examples,those are sentences those are starting with a with vowel

  • James Kennedy

    This is all very good stuff.

    All students of English should know this site’s URL and refer to it when in doubt. Teachers in particular should just give the URL out to their students, thereby avoiding some long explanations in class.

    My grandfather, Arthur Kennedy, was head of the English Department at Stanford University for many years. His specialty was English Philology – the history of the English Language. He was known as one of the top two or three philologists in the world at his death. I know he would have been pleased to have seen a site such as this one

    Keep up the good work.

    James Kennedy

  • Stefano

    To whoever posted this article.
    Great post, it really clarified the rule for me. However, I am still unsure about one aspect of the rule which is, would I say, “a U.K. poitician” or “an U.K. politician”? At present, I feel more comfortable saying “a U.K. politician”. I’m thinking that “a U.K. politician” is correct as the “U.K.” is a stressed “YU-kay” first syllable.

    Also, would I say, “a European country” or “an European country”? Again, in this case I’m more comfortable saying “a European country”. In this case, the first syllable (“yu-ro-pean”) is not necessarily stressed, hence I am unsure if it should be “a” like I am used to, or if I should be using “an” instead.

    Therefore, my question is, what is the correct version and what’s the reason/rule for it?

    Thanks.

  • Monique

    I googled ” new world (america)” and in Wikipedia i read a line, it said “an Historic.”

  • Monique

    why was it so?

  • the winner

    Woo-hoo!! I am right and my friend is wrong! And I have to tell you, I see this error in print all the time. I’ve always felt it just read wrong. Because reading aloud it sounds horrible, but visually I was conflicted. I’m so glad this was here to read.

  • AlexV

    What about “an inspection”?

  • tony t

    What do you use before SMS as in text message? Should you use a or an this one is really difficult!!!!! or am I stupid

  • Brad

    if you are using “SMS” in a sentence, it would be “I wrote an SMS to my friend.” it is “an” because when you *say* the “s,” the sound that comes out of your mouth is “eh” which is the *sound* of a vowel.

    this has been the funniest string of notes. every few months, someone notices this…. 🙂

  • Nella Lappas

    I can’t say I completely agree, thanks to whoever thought of it and for having the initiave to think of it

  • Alphonso Halprin

    Great post, thanks are in order for taking the time to put your ideas down

  • zaynab

    to Danny.
    I think that the way the reader reads what you write is up to you. When for e.g you write an NATO people will read it an /en ey ti ow/ but when you write it as a NATO they’ll read it as a word.
    I know it’ been a long time since you asked the question but maybe you’re still there, i hope that 🙂

  • Vijay

    Good Post…:-)

  • yes

    what if, it is followed by numbers?? (i.e 123, 4, 786 etc)

  • Jennifer

    an HMO? or a HMO? I thought I knew this, it sounds like it should be an HMO to me but the doc I am proofing says a HMO!

  • Valder

    I think there is a typo in here:
    “While we say “a light-water reactor,” the abbreviation is “an LWR.””

    It should be “a LWR”.

  • Akhilesh

    A alphabet or an alphabet ?

    The letter “I” is a alphabet, or the letter “I” is an alphabet. ?

  • steve

    I am from London and I was always taught to pronounce my h’s so I say hotel and the h is not silent where others say ‘otel, I accept the rule but does it mean different dialect and accent will have different ideas about using a or an?

  • Paul Justice

    This is a great post, I always considered my grammar good, but when I write a different matter. Thanks for this article, it will greatly help my writing.

  • Xyciana

    If you do get really stuck, I use Msoft Word and that seems to get it right every time in its spell check. Other word processing products may also do the same.

  • John

    Thank you for this clarification. I recall the proper usage of “a” and “an” from Catholic grammar school but of late I have noticed some public figures INCORRECTLY using an “a” when an “an” would be proper. Most notably of late …Dr. Oz on his TV show. There are quite a few others ( newscasters, actors on TV) also, but I can’t bring to mind their names. To me, it was, and is, a culture shock.

  • Talal

    Thanks for clarifing this in the best possible way. Keep up the good work.

  • Aimee

    Doubt.

    Sometimes, we say statements like this,
    “Hey, don’t you think Will Smith is doing a Sylvester Stallone here?”

    If we use a name starting with a vowel, will the ‘a’ change to ‘an’?

    For example: Will it be correct like this?

    “Hey, don’t you think Will Smith is doing a Arka Saha here?” Or will it change to ‘an’??

    Genuine doubt.

  • Peter

    @Aimee: yes, change it to “an”

  • Sharon

    Thank you so much for this post! My daughter is 8 and was struggling with a/an. I was having difficulty explaining it to her, and your blog here did just the trick! I too have seen many misuses of the words a and an. It drives me crazy to see because it just doesn’t sound right. Hopefully more people will see this.

  • Damen Stephens

    It seems long-winded and confusing to explain the rule in such a manner:

    “The rule states that “a” should be used before words that begin with consonants (e.g., b, c ,d) while “an” should be used before words that begin with vowels (e.g., a,e,i). Notice, however, that the usage is determined by the pronunciation and not by the spelling, as many people wrongly assume.”

    Would it not be easier to state that:

    “‘a’ should be used before a consonant sound, whereas ‘an’ should be used before words which begin with a vowel sound”.

    There is then no need to distinguish between pronunciation, spelling and people’s incorrect assumptions.

  • Najam

    We in our company use abbreviation “SR” for “Service Request”. Should I use an SR or a SR?

  • kapp

    @Najam

    It depends on your corporate culture. During discussions with peers, do you simply use the initialism (saying S.R.) or do you say the entire thing (saying “Service Request”).

    If the former, it will be “an SR”, since you are pronouncing the “S” letter, as “Ehs”, which begins with a vowel sound.

    If the latter, the phrase begins with “Service”; the “S” sound in the word is a consonant, so you would write “a SR”.

    Since people will read the written as they usually speak the verbal, use the one that coincides with how most would read it.

  • din

    that’s the same with UFO- like an UFO
    That’s also the same with NBL- like “an NBL”

  • Jerry

    I feel we got it correct. We go by the following pronunciation. I have been speaking English since I was 3 or 4 and I find there is always something new to learn. What a problem for non-native speakers.

    For each word you have to learn the spelling, pronunciation, and usagel of each words. There really are no pronunciation rules or spelling rules that are consistent.

    I was in Italy and the guide pronunced laser as lass-er. I helped him, but he was so confused. Thus we can have spelling bees in our language. Not so in Spanish or Korean where all letters are pronunced. No spelling bees there!

  • John

    How does the a and an take place as in “a Hispanic” or an Hispanic

  • Maliha Mahmood

    If you are a teacher and have to explain the background of “a” & “an” usage before “h” words, best you can do is to write the words that have “o” after “h”.
    Example:
    Hour
    Honest
    Honourable
    These words have letter or quarter vowel “h” in the beginning .staying silent and letting the vowel followed says it’s name . But it’s just for few words.
    In American English even “herb” will be written as an herb

  • Ken Sousa

    Thanks for providing the rules around the use of the articles “a” and “an”. I am continually appalled when I hear people who are supposed to be professionals in the use of the language, like news anchors, use “a” in front of everything, regardless of the starting sound of the following noun. For shame! Perhaps a little stronger English program in some of our major universities is in order.

Leave a comment: