Column: “A” or “an?”


Question: Dear Grammar Guy, I’m constantly worried I’m not using “an” correctly, or not using it when I should be. The only word I feel really sure about using it before is “honor.” Does it matter if the word starts with a vowel or not? Please help!

Answer: That is an excellent question. Shall we commence an article about articles?

It would be great if “a” was the article for words starting with consonants and “an” the article for words starting with vowels. That would be a nice, simply rule we could all follow – although it wouldn’t leave me with much of a column. As it happens, that’s not the case.

For this one we have to go back to our first grade phonetics lessons. That’s right, folks: We’re sounding it out.

“An” is used before words beginning with a vowel *sound* – whether or not the first letter is actually a vowel. You’ve got “honor” already (“on-er”). “Only” gets an “an” (as in, “an only child”), but “once” doesn’t (ex: “a once-in-a-lifetime experience”). Though both start with “O,” only one begins with a vowel sound. Say “once” in your head: “wonse.” The rule for “an” applies to single letters and numbers too: an “F;” an “8;” etc.

Now I’m sure you’ve deduced “A” is used for words beginning with consonant sounds, so I’ll save the ink. The big one you’re probably wondering about here is the word “historic” – does it get an “A” or an “An?” Unless you’re affecting an 18th century dialect, you probably say words like “historic” and “hotel” with a hard “H.” That means they get an “A” before them.

The secret here is something that’s been in your grammar toolbox since you were a kid: when in doubt, sound it out. If the word begins with a vowel sound, give it an “An” before it. Otherwise, it gets an “A.”

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