Using “a” and “an” Before Words

By Daniel Scocco

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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).

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

  • 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.

  • Stephen Riley

    Thanks for the tips. Which should we use before HISD reading specialist – “a” or “an?”

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