a, an: Grammatical Articles

(confusion exists about usage of "a" and "an" in front of other words)

a, an
a (AY)

The correct choice of the “articles” a and an depends on the initial sound of a word, not on the initial letter, of the word that they precede.

The letter a should be used before all words beginning with a consonant sound except silent h (an honor) and before words beginning with vowels that represent combined consonant and vowel sounds (university, unit).

Examples: a boy, a European, a j, a picture, a store, a table, a bottle, a window, a phone, a hyphen, and a one-horse town.

There are also words that begin with vowels that have a consonant sound. Say “unique” out loud and you will hear that it contains in its first syllable a consonant y sound as well as the vowel oo sound. You are saying (phonetically) yoo-NEEK. Similarly, “union”, “use”, and “eulogy” begin with a consonant y sound and call for the article a. If you use your ears, you will never be guilty of “an historic” or “an unique.”

Let’s repeat and expand this concept: a is used in front of words that begin with a long u (when pronounced as yoo), eu, and ew, and before the word one. Examples: a united country, a usurper, a eulogy, a ewe, a U-boat, a European, a one-horse town, and many a one.

an (AN)

The word an should be used before all vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, u). Examples: an entry, an f, an hour, an orange, an ape, an odor, an idea, an eagle, an honor, an umbrella, and an unbeliever.

One of the most common mistakes, both written and oral, is the use of an before “historical” or “historic”. When the word following the article begins with a consonant sound, the article used is a; when it begins with a vowel sound, the article used is an.

So remember, a word may in fact begin with a consonant, yet have an initial vowel sound. The word “honest” is a case in point. Say it out loud and you will see what is meant.

The initial consonant h is silent, so the word has an initial vowel sound; hence, an honest man, an hour ago, an heir to the throne, an honest and an honorable peace; on the other hand, when a word begins with an aspirated h (a speech sound followed by a puff of breath or the speech sound represented by English h), correct usage is a hotel, a house, a hill, a hymn, a honeycomb, and a history or a historical.

The Inconsistencies of "a" and "an"

Everyone who has a desire to improve his/her English skills should strive to develop fluency and accuracy by having access to information that presents a better understanding of the many confusing words that exist in English.

The proper use of "a" and "an"

There is an article on the proper use of "a" and "an" in just about every usage book ever written, although apparently few native speakers of English have any difficulty with them; in fact rarely does anyone think about them in speech.

If there is any difficulty, it is to be found in writing. The basic rules are as follows: Use "a" before a consonant sound; use "an" before a vowel sound. Before a letter or an acronym or before numerals, choose "a" or "an" according to the way the letter or numeral is pronounced: an FDA directive, a United Nations' resolution, a $50.00 bill.

As we might expect, actual usage is more complex than the simple rules tend to lead us to expect. Here are some of the things that actual usage shows:

Learning about confusing words is essential to better communication.

In line with the basic rule, before words with an initial consonant sound, "a" is the usual application in speech and writing.

Before "h" in an unstressed or weakly stressed syllable, "a" and "an" are both used in writing (an historic, a historic) but an is more usual in speech, whether the "h" is pronounced or not. This variation exists as a result of historical development; in unstressed and weakly stressed syllables, "h" was formerly not pronounced in many words as it is currently pronounced by many people. A few words; such as, historic and (especially in England) hotel, are in transition, and may be found with either a or an. Apparently, people may now choose the article that suits their personal pronunciation preferences with several h words.

Occasionally in modern writing and speech and regularly in the King James Version of the Bible, an is used before "h" in a stressed syllable, as in an hundred. Again, we have the same historical change: many more words were pronounced with a silent initial "h" in the past than are in the present. A few words; such as, heir, hour, and honest, generally have silent "h"; some others, like herb or humble are pronounced both ways. Use a or an according to your personal pronunciation preferences.

Before words beginning with a consonant sound but an orthographic vowel, an is sometimes used in speech and writing (an unique and such an one). This use is less frequent now than in the past.

Before words with an initial vowel sound, an is usual in speech and writing. This is in line with the basic rule.

—Compiled from information located in
Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Mirriam-Webster Inc., Publishers;
Springfield, Massachusetts, 1989.