Writing Tip: “A,” “An,” and your Ear

 Writing Tip: “A,” “An,” and your Ear

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When dealing with single-subject nouns, article-choice (“a” versus “an”) is determined by sound; as such, deciding between “a” and “an” can be an issue for native and non-native English-speakers alike. The distinction becomes intuitive through repetition (after all, nobody’s ordering “an Grande, Quad, Nonfat, One-Pump, No-Whip, Mocha”), and having a working knowledge of English’s underlying rules (and their outliers) can only serve to enhance your command of language.

According to the Purdue OWL (grammar inquiries needn’t be limited to Writing Center appointments!), “The choice of article is actually based upon the phonetic (sound) quality of the first letter in a word, not on the orthographic (written) representation of the letter.”

If you’re looking for a “rule,” so to speak, it would be as follows:  “a” precedes words beginning with consonant-sounds, and “an” goes before words that begin with vowel-sounds.

For example:

A Canadian goose pecked at the discarded McDonald’s bag.

Two women, in an olive-drab Lexus, argue over immunizing their mini-schnauzer.


There are, of course, some exceptions.

Before an unsounded “h,” as in hour,  an is used; this is due to the fact that the first phonetic sound is a vowel (“o” in the case of hour). Similarly, when “u”

makes the same sound as the “y” in “you,” (unicorn) or “o” makes the same sound as “w” in “won,” (one)  “a” is used.  The following sentence illustrates a handful of examples:

An honorable lumberjack got stuck in a hailstorm, for an hour, trying to rescue a unicorn at his daughter’s request.

Reading work aloud-especially to yourself- may seem a bit silly, but as a practice it’s invaluable. Not only can it help in deciding between “a” and “an,” but  it can also improve sentence fluidity and allow you to make better decisions regarding punctuation, too!

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