Give me an “A”: a vs. an

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The indefinite articles a and an both mean the same thing. The definite article the refers to a particular thing (“Give me the ring! The wedding ring!”) while a and an refer to any item of a certain type (“Please hand me a nail, any nail.”) But when do you use a and when do you use an? You were probably taught in school that, preceding a vowel (“an apple”), you use an. Preceding a consonant, you use a.

Ah, but that isn’t quite true. You don’t only use an before any word that begins with a vowel. That would be too easy. You also use it before any word that sounds like it begins with a vowel! That’s why “an hour” is correct, not “a hour.” Even though h is a consonant, in hour, it’s silent.

So, should a Cockney flower vendor say, “They’re going to have an ‘urricane in Aruba” (not “a ‘urricane”) simply because, the way she says it, hurricane starts with a vowel sound? Maybe so. But even better, maybe she could learn how to pronounce the h in hurricane like the high-class ladies do. Hmm, that sounds like a great premise for a hit Broadway musical.

Editor’s note: You can read about this topic on the article “Using ‘a’ and ‘an’ Before Words.”

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15 thoughts on “Give me an “A”: a vs. an”

  1. The same is true for “a”, which can be in front of a vowel letter if the sound is not a vowel sound : you should say “a university”, and not “an university”, because the first phoneme of “university” is a phonetic “ju” sound : /juːnɪˈvɜːsətiː/

  2. This brings up the age-old discussion ( at least in my youth – some time ago now!) of whether it should be ‘a hotel’ or ‘an hotel’. I suspect that there are very few in the general population who still pronounce hotel beginning with an ‘o’ sound, and hence the argument is probably now dead!

  3. So, I get confused with acronyms. Like LLC. It sounds like it starts with a vowel when you say it, but when you say the real word it’s not a vowel. MS Word wants to us “a” but I certainly know they aren’t the gods of grammar!

  4. that means we will use “a” before any words beginning with consonant sounds and “an” before vowel sounds. Therefore, we must know how to pronounce words exactly. And i think, a hotel is better than an hotel.

  5. What about adjectives ? I’m not a native speaker, and recently I read a phrase where the article seemed to follow the noun it related to, even though there was an adjective next to it.
    We would then say “an rotating octopus”. I had never really paid attention to that before, so how is it supposed to be ?

  6. No, Bern, you might have been seeing a typographical error. It would be “a rotating octopus,” not “an rotating octopus.” Perhaps the reason for an is that English-speaking people long ago thought that the adjacent vowels in “a octopus” would sound stranger (“uh-ah”) than “an octopus” (“unah”). The word an eliminates adjacent vowels.

  7. “An elephant ate a eucalyptus leaf.” This might be a poor explanation for non-native speakers, but hard vowel sounds (e.g., eu-, u-) are preceded by “a,” and soft vowel sounds are preceded by an “an.”

  8. So, it is safe to assume this rule means that acronyms use “an” or “a” based on the sound of the letter pronunciation? As in, “an LCD television at Best Buy was running an SBC commercial,” where both acronyms here are pronounced as “El” and “Es,” respectively; and, “I need a UV ray protection of 30 or higher,” where the acronym has the “Ju” sound already mentioned. (This, as opposed to what would happen if each word were said, i.e. “A liquid crystal display”).

  9. I’ve heard people say, “This is an historic day”–although it sounds all right when spoken, it doesn’t look right, written. Should it be “This is a historic day”?

  10. Don’t know how many cockney flower vendors you’ve met but the ones I’ve seen have never been female!

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