When to Use ‘An’ Instead of ‘A’
  • 3-minute read
  • 30th September 2014

When to Use ‘An’ Instead of ‘A’

‘A’ and ‘an’ are the two versions of the indefinite article. The pause that ‘an’ adds between two vowel sounds helps us to distinguish separate words in speech. For example, it is much more difficult to say ‘a office’ than ‘an office’. Here, then, we will look at when to use ‘an’ instead of ‘a’ before a word.

Words Beginning with Hard-Sounding Vowels

The basic rule for indefinite articles is that you should use ‘an’ when the word which follows begins with a vowel, but use ‘a’ when the word which follows begins with a consonant.

There are, however, many exceptions to this general rule. Whenever a word beginning with a vowel does not sound like it starts with a vowel, you should use ‘a’ rather than ‘an’.

For example, although the word ‘university’ begins with a vowel, it is pronounced ‘yoo-niversity’ rather than ‘ooh-niversity’. This means that ‘a university’ is correct, but ‘an university’ is incorrect. Another good example is ‘European’:

Free movement is protected by a European Union law.Correct

Free movement is protected by an European law.Incorrect

Despite the word ‘European’ beginning with a vowel, like ‘university’, it is pronounced with a harder ‘yoo-’ sound, meaning an ‘a’ should be used.

Words Beginning with Consonants

Similarly, if the word following the article begins with a consonant which does not sound like a consonant when spoken, you should use ‘an’ instead of ‘a’.

Take, for example, the word ‘hour’. The ‘h’ in ‘hour’ is typically silent, so we would say ‘an hour’ rather than ‘a hour’.

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Some also recommend using ‘an’ for other words beginning with an ‘h’, such as ‘hotel’ or ‘historical’. This is because these words used to be pronounced with a silent ‘h’ (and still are sometimes).

In America, for example, the word ‘herb’ is often pronounced ‘urb’, so ‘an herb’ would be correct. However, this is becoming less common, so the general rule should always be to use ‘a’ when a word sounds like it begins with a consonant, and ‘an’ when it sounds like it starts with a vowel.

Abbreviations, Acronyms and Initialisms

The rules above also apply to abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms. Essentially, the indefinite article to use depends on how the abbreviation is pronounced. For instance, we could say:

I attended a Nasa press conference.

Here, we use ‘a’ because ‘Nasa’ is pronounced as a single word with a consonant sound at the start. But if an abbreviation starts with a vowel sound, we would use ‘an’ instead of ‘a’:

We are releasing an LP record of the album next month.

If you would like more advice about spelling and grammar, or to have your own work checked by expert proofreaders, get in touch with the professionals at Proofed today!

Comments (4)
Dave Collins
23rd January 2020 at 12:36
Can you please help to settle an argument.... Should it be …. "Identify an hazardous condition" - or - "Identify a hazardous condition" Your advice would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks
    23rd January 2020 at 17:01
    Hi, Dave. When it comes to the indefinite article before a word that starts with an 'h', it depends on whether the 'h' is pronounced or not (e.g. 'an hour' vs. 'a hairbrush'). But I'm fairly sure 'hazardous' is always pronounced with an audible 'h', so it should be 'a hazardous condition'.
A Laher
11th May 2020 at 21:45
Hi Should it be 'an RH Logic' or 'a RH Logic' ? To settle an argument... thank you
    12th May 2020 at 10:51
    Hi there. With abbreviations, as with other words, it depends on pronunciation. And as you would presumably pronounce 'RH' something like 'ar-aitch', it would be 'an RH Logic'. Hope that helps.

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