A vs. An: Grammar Guide

Question...

I received this question and thought I'd write a quick hub:

How do I know when to use a or an before a noun/subject?

The Article: An

Use the article "an" before a word beginning with a vowel.

  • I ate an apple with my lunch.
  • The jewelry was made by an East Indian woman.
  • The growing boy had an enormous appetite.

There are two exceptions with the article "an":

  1. When the letter "u" sounds like a "y", as in "you", use the article "a".
  2. When the letter "o" sounds like a "w", as in "water", use the article "a".

  • A U.S. navy ship was deployed from San Diego.
  • My daughter wanted to be a unicorn for Halloween.
  • She was a one-woman show.

The Article: A

Use the article "a" before a word beginning with a consonant.

  • A clown performed at the party.
  • I saw a peacock walking around loose at the zoo.

  • The book was about a girl in the 1700s.

There is one exception with the article "a":

  1. Use "an" with a silent "h".

  • I will wait for an hour.
  • He was an honorable man.

More by this Author


Thoughts, Comments, Questions? 40 comments

Brendan 3 years ago

Another exception - Acronyms. I think the key to remember isn't whether a word begins with a vowel or consonant as far as spelling, but whether it begins with a vowel or consonant sound.

"an HD tv"

"an x-ray"

"a United Nations meeting"


vgffyu 3 years ago

There's another exception. The word "x-ray" is said with an.


Billy 4 years ago

You're a great teacher! Is teaching your profession?


doc 4 years ago

John Gomez:

The use IS becoming increasingly popular. The verb is related to the noun which is singular. Therefore, the verb must correspond.

Wasiq:

Being AN electronic engineer.

Moein:

Is there anything specific you are looking for? There are many exceptions in English grammar.


Moein 4 years ago

Hello everybody.

Can you tell me some exceptions in English Grammar?

Thanks a million.


wasiq 4 years ago

can i say a sentence "being an electronic engineer"

or i should write "an" instead


john gomez 4 years ago

The use of vitamin supplements and herbs (be) ___ becoming increasingly popular among Americans.

please choose between - is & are! which do you prefer?

there's a moment when both are right, and i don't remember how to explain it. anyone? thanks!


E. Oxoa 5 years ago

I share the doubt with Rafael.

IMO, If we stated that when you spell the letter "R" the sound you make is like "are" therefore, whenever this sound is at the beginning of the word, we should write "an".

I believe that this is more commonly present when we use acronyms as nouns, such as RSS feed or RCMP.

Examples:

I have an RSS feed.

He was riding an RCMP horse.

The video is broadcasted using an RTMP server.

I just bought an RCA Television.

Jules wants the an RPG game not available in the store.

Whenever the starting sound is the strong RAH, REH, etc, it should be written "a".

Examples:

A rapid movement.

A reluctant reader.

A ridiculous person.

A robust tree.

A rustic garden.


Rafael 5 years ago

What should be right, as per reading the thread: 'An R' or 'a R'? im a bit confused. Thank you so much!


tayebeh 5 years ago

why we use an before mp3 player?


Brian 5 years ago

As George said above, forget about how the noun following the article is spelled. If it starts with a "consonant" sound, the artile is "a". This would include words like "uniform" where the consonant sound is "you-niform". Use "an" for vowel sounds. This would include include words like "hour" where the vowel sound is "ow-er" or "our".


Hellen 5 years ago

Hi guys!! I want to thank you for this great page you have. I am student, I´m preparing to be a teacher someday,but I am alredy practicing my english, I am teaching first level, and thought a good idea to look for more examples about the uses the article a/an, and I think you helped a lot, thank you very much. ;-)


Californian English 5 years ago

I didn't read everything. It seems like most is covered.

But what about the letter U as in "a user experience"?

Remember the choice of "a" or "an" and "the" [thi] is based on whther it sounds like a consonant or vowel. Do not be confused with sight.

So we can have, "a usurpation" in which case I am claiming a pure vowel, or "a usual thing", in which case it is now a consonant.

Remember, when people read, they are speaking in their minds. So we should consider the sound and not the sight.

U....this one poses the most problems to students.

For H, all you really need to know is that most times it is aspirated and thus a consonant.


Lindsay Downs 5 years ago

What about a list? "An associate's, master's, or bachelor's degree." Since it should be a different article preceding "master's", do you have to write "An associate's, a master's, or a bachelor's" or can the original list be considered correct?


Chris 5 years ago

The article conforms to the word it precedes, so "an apple," but "a green apple." It's about the pronunciation of the word following the article.

By the way, the rule about "h" seems to be one of syllabic stress, not etymology (and note the lack of "n" in that word). History comes from the Greek via the Latin and French, not German. Look at the fact that it's "an historic" and "a heroic," but not "an history" or "a hero." [Note: I do not recommend watching any videos posted under the title "an hero." They are always disturbing.]

As for the article preceding the letter "h" itself, I suppose that depends on whether you say "aitch" or "haitch." Some accents of English pronounce the "h" at the beginning of the letter's name and therefore it would be "a haitch" [uh haych], but "an aitch" [an aych].


Maddie 6 years ago

what if there is an adjective in front of the noun? For example, do we use:

a green apple or

a green apple ?


Sarah 6 years ago

Normally I would say "a historic" sounds better, but because my pronouciation of the H sound is so subtle when saying "historic" I can understand using either "a" or "an." However, saying "an history lesson" sounds very strange to me so I would definitely opt for an "a" in that case.


Bruce JAques 6 years ago

Listened to a lecturer who advised that The h was pronounced when the entymology was from German but not from French. Therefore the correct choice is based upon the derivation of the word. Modern English tends to use that which sounds correct so I regularly hear "An Historic" which conforms to the entymology argument


John 6 years ago

Some have mentioned "a hotel" and "an historic."

The way that I learned it, "an" is used before a pronounced "h" when the accent is on the second syllable, rather than the first.

Not sure what happens when the accent is on the *third* syllable. I have seen references to "a hierarchical," but not nearly as many as to "a hierarchical."


liz 6 years ago

Mr. Obama uses "a" incorrectly as do some media types. Why are they not corrected? Also media types don't seem to understand adverbs vs. adjectives, ie "drive safe" vs "drive safely". Do we not teach English any more?


Gon 6 years ago

An HR professional. "H" sounds like AAA-ch. It begins with a vowel sound.


Jeff 7 years ago

What about 'an H' vs. 'a H'... The 'H' is neither silent or not silent hopnorable vs heard... It's simply an 'H'.... As in: I was talking to an HR Professional. or, I was talk to an HR Proffesional???


Darin Kohles 8 years ago

As A literatate person and AN American (of the US variety), I've encouterd audible 'wince' moments as well as literary ones that make me cringe. Depending on the source and venue, I often have to take A step back and consider the source and topical relevance:

American reporter: 'A Hotel was bombed today in..."

British (cliche') cabbie: 'take ya to an 'otel then can i guvn'r...'

In this case the spoken interpretation of the word drives the grammatical 'accuracy'.

[I apologize for adopting a hackneied tone, but that's what I do when reading and encounter A A vs. A situation - I just don my internal Eliza hat and sound it out]

- Thank you all for the topic and all the comments, it lets me know that I'm not the only one that gets distracted by AN issue such as this'n.


jerezano 8 years ago

Hello,

The definitions for use of A and An are almost correct. One uses A before a word that begins with a consonant SOUND, and An before a word that begins with a vowel SOUND. If one remembers this simple rule then it becomes unnecessary to remember special exceptions such as A before hotel or A before one, etc. If you would change your basic definition for use to this simple rule your explanation would be a lot clearer. The use of A and An have nothing to do at all with spelling. Their use depends on the rule of euphany (or pleasant sound). jerezano


Robin profile image

Robin 9 years ago from San Francisco Author

Hi Jonathon,

Thanks for the comment. I think you're right, "an R" sounds better. Thanks for the mentioning of the "H" with "an" and "a", too.


Jonathon VS 9 years ago

I would agree with your alphabet list, Robin, except for one letter: I would say "an R" because pronouncing "R" usually requires an â sound.

On a side note, I would add to your "a"/"an" list that sometimes in formal speech or writing, "an" is used before an H, regardless of whether or not the H is silent. I've noticed that many archaelogists talk of "an historic landmark," and some elderly people specify "an hotel" at which they may stay. This isn't common in the twenty-first century, but I felt it should be mentioned.

Good work on this hub! As a rather vocal "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" advocate, I highly appreciate that you've given grammar the attention it so rarely receives.


Robin profile image

Robin 9 years ago from San Francisco Author

Hi Andy,

Yes, H has a long a sound and N has an eh sound. It's hard even for a native speaker; I had to read through my alphabet many times and proofread. ;) I've never thought about it before. Thanks for the replies, so I know you got my comment!

Best,

Robin


Andy 9 years ago

Greatly appreciated Robin,

I guess that settled my many years of correct and wrong assumptions.

I was 25/26 accurate. the only mistake I made was H, as I thought it only works for words like honest, honorable ...etc, those start with an no-sound H, but, pronounced as "O" sound. Didn't know it also works for alphbet H.

I can certainly sleep well tonight. Cheers ! Andy


Robin profile image

Robin 9 years ago from San Francisco Author

Hi Andy,

I would follow the rule, if it sounds like a vowel, use "an"; if it sounds like a consonant, use "a". Here is how I would write the alphabet: an A, a B, a C, a D, an E, an F, a G, an H, an I, a J, a K, an L, an M, an N, an O, a P, a Q, a R, an S, a T, a U, a V, a W, an X, a Y, and a Z.

Hope that helps!


andy 9 years ago

Hi folks, I am pretty confused about how to distiguish the usage of A and AN, in such conditions, can anyone help? e.g. it's an A, it's a B, it's a U, it's an E ...etc, is there a fixed rule that, particularly on alphbets

thanks, andy


Robin profile image

Robin 9 years ago from San Francisco Author

Hi Face,

Write the sentence as if the parenthesis were omitted, e.g., ...considering doing a (I'm assuming, unpaid) rehearsal...." Cheers!


FACE 9 years ago

What do you do for A vs AN in the following situation, involving inserted parenthesis?

"...considering doin' an (I'm assuming, unpaid) rehearsal..." ?

Thanx!

FACE


Robin profile image

Robin 9 years ago from San Francisco Author

Hi Sam,

If the word following the article has a vowel sound then use the word "an"; if it has a consonant sound then use "a".  "An MBA" would be correct because "M" has a vowel sound.  When a word sounds like "you" or "wo" use the article "a", e.g., a eulogy.  Even thought this word begins with a vowel, it has a consonant sound at the beginning, so you would use the article "a".   I hope this helps.


Sam 9 years ago

Hi Robin,

Your explanations made me pretty clear, but I am still confused with the way 'an' is used.

When a word sounds like 'YOU' or 'Wo', we should use 'a'. Am i right?

And please give me more examples on usage of 'a' and 'an'.

As StuartJ mentioned, is it possible that one can say 'An MBA'?


Robin profile image

Robin 9 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks, StuartJ. That's a great way of putting it! ;)


StuartJ profile image

StuartJ 9 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

I must say that I have always heard the rule as: 'use "a" before a consonant sound; use "an" before a vowel sound'.

A university

A euphemism

Incidentally, "an hotel" is optional. Many English say "a hotel". It depends on how strongly one stresses the "h", which depends on one's dialect. The tendence is towards saying "a hotel".

In American English the "h" in "herb" is often unstressed, so therefore "an herb" is what many Americans would say.

There are odd words that seem to be able to take either -- unique for example. It can be "a unique" or "a unique".

To express the rule in terms of sounds rather than letters is important where acronyms are concerned:

An MBA

An SoS

etc.


Robin profile image

Robin 9 years ago from San Francisco Author

I'm glad it helped, Jenny. Thanks for the hub idea! ;)


Jenny 9 years ago

Thanks for the explanation. You make it so clear and easy to understand with the examples. If only my former English teachers had been that good...or maybe I should have paid closer attention!


Robin profile image

Robin 9 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks, George. That's a great way of explaining it!


gredmondson profile image

gredmondson 9 years ago from San Francisco, California

Hi Robin,

Some grammarians express these rules as "When a noun's beginning sound is a consonant sound, the article is 'a'". Most of the time, the letter itself is enough, but sometimes there will be a consonant that will have a vowel sound. The English say, "An hotel," for example. I'm searching my mind for an American English example of this (and I know there is one), but I can't think of it right now!

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