Posted by: Jack Henry | February 9, 2023

Editor’s Corner: A or An

Good morning!

My friend, Sam D. asked a question about how to use the indefinite articles a and an. Since quite a few people other than Sam have also asked me the same question, I thought I’d revisit the rule.

You may have learned that you use a before a word that starts with a consonant (for example, a dog) and you use an before a word that starts with a vowel (for example, an elephant). That rule is usually true, but it’s incomplete and not always accurate.

In reality, you should choose the article (a or an) based on the sound of the following word. Let’s take words that begin with the letter U, for example. The word unicorn begins with a Y consonant sound: yu-nicorn, so you would say a unicorn. On the other hand, the word umbrella starts with a U vowel sound (um-brella), so you would say an umbrella. Remember, it’s the sound, not the letter, that counts.

Words that begin with the letters eu start with the same Y consonant sound as unicorn, so you would use the article a with them:

  • a eucalyptus tree
  • a European woman
  • a euphemism

And as Sam pointed out, it can be difficult to know which article to use with initialisms and acronyms: for example, you would say an SSN not a SSN because the letter S starts with an ess vowel sound. Here are some similar examples:

  • an FBI agent
  • an MIT graduate
  • an R&D project

The letters F, M, and R all begin with vowel sounds (eff, em, ahr).

  • an FBI agent
  • an MBA degree
  • an RFP (request for proposal)

Confused? I’ve only just begun!

Some words, like historic, can follow either a or an. How do you decide? It actually depends on your accent. When you speak, do you stress the H sound or not? I do, and most Americans do—we say a historic. But many Brits do not. For Brits, the H sound is silent—the same way we pronounce the word herb (like thyme and oregano, not the man’s name). Most Brits say an historic.

If you’re still a little confused (and who could blame you?), I found this online resource that might help: Is It ‘a’ or ‘an’? A List of Special Words.

Then, my British spouse would encourage you to pour yourself an ’ot cup of tea and get on with your day.

Donna Bradley Burcher |Technical Editor, Advisory | jack henry™

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123

Pronouns she/her/hers

Symitar Documentation Services

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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