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Commonly Confused Words: A vs. An


For the most part, it’s quite straightforward to figure out if you need to use a or an before a word.

  • USUALLY, if the word following begins with a vowel, you should use an.

    For example:
    • An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
    • We saw an elephant at the zoo.
    • My brother’s opinion on the television show was an interesting one.
    • I bought an orange jumper.
    • “I think it’s going to rain this weekend – have you packed an umbrella?”

  • USUALLY, if the word following begins with a consonant, you should use a.

    For example:
    • They work in a factory.
    • We’re staying in a hotel by the beach.
    • They are getting married in a local church.
    • The play is a murder mystery set in the 1930s.
    • We’re volunteering at a school.

While, as always seems to be the case in the English language, there are exceptions to these two rules, these exceptions are relatively easy to get your head around - especially once you know what you’re looking for.

  • If the word following begins with a vowel but is pronounced like it begins with a consonant, you should use an.

    For example:
    • After winning the game, he experienced a euphoric feeling. (‘Euphoric’ is pronounced YOO-FOR-IK.)
    • It cost ninety nine pence, but he gave the cashier a one pound coin. (‘One’ is pronounced WON.)
    • He wrote a book set in his idea of a utopia. (‘Utopia’ is pronounced YOU-TOE-PEE-A.)

  • If the word following begins with a consonant but is pronounced like it begins with a vowel, you should use a. Watch out for words beginning with ‘h’ and acronyms.

    For example:
    • He’s an FBI agent. (The letter ‘f’ is pronounced ‘ef’.)
    • The drive takes an hour and a half if you use the motorway. (‘Hour’ is pronounced ‘our’.)
    • The pasta needs an herb, but I don’t know which one. (Watch out for accents – in America ‘herb’ is pronounced ‘erb’, but in Britain we would say ‘a herb’.)
    • They have a New York home and an LA home. (The letter ‘l’ is pronounced ‘el’.)
    • For my work experience, I’m shadowing an MP. (The letter ‘m’ is pronounced ‘em’.)
    • They transmitted an SOS distress call. (The letter‘s’ is pronounced ‘es’.)

Knowing when to use a and when to use an becomes instinctive after a while, but, in the meantime, remember to use a if the word following sounds like it begins with a consonant and an if it sounds like it begins with a vowel.

If you found this post useful, why not check out some of our other articles on commonly confused words?

 


02 Feb 2015
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