If you’re confused about when you should use ‘a’ or ‘an’, you’re not alone. There are a lot of misconceptions about this, and we’re going to straighten those out today.
‘A’ and ‘an’ are indefinite articles used to identify a noun that is non-specific and singular. There are certain rules around whether to use ‘a’ or ‘an,’ and there is some confusion around the topic.
Today we’re going to get clear on when you should use each one, and we’ll take a look in particular at special words that trip people up most often.
The rule is actually quite simple:
Now, the reason why people often get confused is that they think this means that if the noun begins with the letter ‘u,’ for example, which is a vowel, then you should use ‘an.’ But the letter ‘u’ doesn’t always make the sound of a vowel.
That’s why you should say:
A university ✅
An university ❌
Same with the letter ‘h.’ Sometimes it’s pronounced, and others, it isn’t. For example, in the word ‘honor,’ the ‘h’ is silent, so you take the sound of the following letter, which is /ɒ/, a vowel, so you say:
An honor ✅
A honor ❌
But in the word ‘hospital,’ the ‘h’ is pronounced and is a consonant sound, so you’ll say:
A hospital ✅
An hospital ❌
As you can see, the rule is pretty airtight. If the first sound (remember, it’s the sound, not the letter) is a vowel, use ‘an’. If the first sound is a consonant, use ‘a.’ The only tricky bit is with words that begin with ‘h’ because whether or not the ‘h’ is pronounced can be down to personal preference. In that case, pick the article that’s relevant to you (‘a’ if you pronounce the ‘h’ and ‘an’ if you don’t).
Nonetheless, here’s a list of words that commonly trip people up, either because they’re using the beginning letter instead of sound or because their intuition is telling them so.
Now let's take a look at some of these special words used in a sentence, so you can see how they get used in context.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
You’re as rare as a unicorn.
We need a European passport to go there.
This is an LGBTQ+ event.
It’s an hour-long meeting.
They’re taking an X-Ray as we speak.
So there you have it. Though some words are tricky, as long you’re always going by the sound a letter makes and not the name of the letter, you should be good to go.
Let’s summarize what we’ve learned:
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