Posted by: Jack Henry | July 23, 2012

Editor’s Corner: Article on articles — “a” and “an”

Today I’ve grabbed another topic from the e-mail bag: a versus an.

Dear Editrix,

When I run spellcheck and the grammar checker, they always suggests “a” instead of “an” in the following sentence: “I just sent you an e-mail.” Why would it not be “an,” since e-mail starts with a vowel?

Are there other such examples where the “proper” use of “a” (vs. “an”) seems to run opposite common thinking?


A or an English Fan

Dear Fan,

Regarding the first question, you are correct—the appropriate article for “e-mail” is “an e-mail.” I can’t answer for certain why the grammar checker might be correcting that phrase, but here is a little secret: the Microsoft spelling and grammar checkers are not always correct. For example, spellcheck hates the word “lets” and insists it is a contraction every time, all the time.

There are several ways to add to your dictionary, define which words and terms to autocorrect, and tinker with your grammar and spelling settings. In our version of Outlook, you can make these changes in File → Options → Mail → Editor Options. Be careful in here, though. You don’t want to turn off all of the electronic help these options provide.

As for your second question, there are exceptions to the rule which says: Use a before words that start with consonants; use an before words that start with vowels. This is a more accurate version of the rule, that should help with the quirky situations:

“…use a before words that start with a consonant sound and an before words that start with a vowel sound.”*

For example, it is an hour, not a hour, because hour sounds like it begins with a vowel. The same goes for “a university,” “a user,” etc.

For more information on this topic, see Grammar Girl (link below). If you’d like to read a little more about this part of speech (articles) in general, go to the Purdue OWL (

*Quote from Grammar Girl (

Hope this helps!


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