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When is It Appropriate to Use "an" Instead of "a"?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2016
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In American English, there are several instances where you would use “an” instead of “a” to speak or write correctly. Both “an” and “a” are called indefinite articles because they don't tend to be as specific as other forms of articles like “the.” If you say, “I was talking to a dog,” it’s not quite the same as saying, “ I was talking to the dog.” “I want a sandwich” is equally not as specific as “I want the sandwich you are holding.”

Lots of people are taught the rule that it is important to use “an” instead of “a” when words begin with a vowel. This is not exactly accurate. Some words beginning with a vowel are best proceeded by “a” instead of “an”. Actually the difference lies in how the word sounds, not the letter with which it begins. If the initial sound of the word sounds like a consonant but begins with a vowel, paying attention to that sound can help you decide that words like the following take “an” instead of “a.” Here are some words where it is easy to determine that “an” is the appropriate choice: An apple, an orange, an only child, an Italian, an early start, an eel, an unusual situation.

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The vowel sounds produced in the first sound of each word in the above examples are classic vowel sounds, like short A, long O, short I, short E, long E and short U. These words, when they begin with such sounds, will tend to take “an” instead of “a”. Furthermore, words with a silent “h” like “herb” and “heir” often take “an” instead of “a”. In British English, you’ll find a few more words that drop the h sound and take “an” than you will in American English.

There are words that begin with vowels that will take “a” instead of “an”. The long U sound in words like ukulele, usual, useful, actually produces a “y” sound at the beginning comparable to the opening sounds in words like youthful. Though it would seem to make sense to use “an” instead of “a” since these words begin with a vowel, it isn’t just about the letter, but the sound. You would use “a” before ukulele, useful or usual. Furthermore, a few words with an “o” like one and once, make a beginning “W” sound and take an “a.” Examples include: a once in a lifetime opportunity, a useful tool, and a ukulele.

Lastly, you might be using an indefinite article before a number or a letter. Here, be directed by the opening sound of the number or letter. An H, an 8, an O, an A, and an S are correct, as are a 1, a 7, a T, a U, and a 2. Make sure that the opening sound is pure vowel, not a hidden consonant sound, when you plan on using “an” instead of “a”.

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anon331906
Post 16

Which word is proper? The name "on" a drivers license or "in" a drivers license?

anon327264
Post 15

@anon72603: You would say a European citizen, a Euro coin and so on.

anon326832
Post 14

Would you say: "because of an security flaw" or "because of a security flaw"?

anon292788
Post 13

Would you say "an officer" or "a officer"?

amypollick
Post 12

@anon234606: Both sentences are correct, since "apple" and "ape" both start with vowel sounds. "Ape" starts with a long "a" sound, and "apple" takes the short "a." So, "an" is used for both.

One example is the word "use." Now, "use" starts with a vowel, but not a vowel *sound.* So, one would say, "I could find a use for that," rather than "I could find an use for that." Say it out loud and the difference is clear.

anon234606
Post 11

Wow. As an English speaker I never knew about this rule. I am still quite confused! Which one is incorrect - "I saw an ape"/"I saw an apple"? Thanks for the help!

amypollick
Post 10

@anon180107: It's as much about beginning with a vowel *sound* as a vowel. If you say the letter "L" aloud, it sounds like "ell," which begins with the "e" sound. So, "An LCEF" is correct. Even though I love it and have a degree in it, I'll agree with anyone who says English is an odd language. It surely is.

anon180107
Post 9

I was just instructed "An LCEF" is correct, so how does that apply to any rules. I don't see the connection, I must be right and it is supposed to be "A LCEF."

anon119689
Post 7

You wouldn't say "an Applicant Test Service" you would say "the Applicant Test Service test".

amypollick
Post 6

No, "an Applicant Test Service" would be correct.

anon75693
Post 5

What about abbreviations, would you use "an" or "a" in front of it, for instance if I am talking about the ATS test that is held for police officers here in Ontario canada, I would say an ATS test but if it would sound weird if I said an Applicant Test Service.

anon72603
Post 4

It's "an easy task" and "an e-learning tool." A word beginning with two vowels will almost never have a consonant sound.

anon40118
Post 3

I cannot distinguish between consonant sound and vowel sound. So should we say "a easy task" or "an easy task", "a e-learning tool" or "an e-learning tool"? Sorry I am confused. Please help.

anon17381
Post 1

In standard British English, the h at the beginning of "herb" is not silent.

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