Saturday, September 29, 2012

More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About the Indefinite Articles A and An

       The simplest way to choose which indefinite article to use in front of a noun or adjective, one still used in some quarters, is to use a when the word begins with a consonant and an when it begins with a vowel. The trouble is that this doesn't work very well. Vowels don't always sound like vowels, and consonants don't always sound like consonants. The correct way to choose between a and an is not to note whether the following noun or adjective begins with a vowel or a consonant . . . the correct way to choose is to note whether the word begins with a vowel sound or a consonant sound. If the word begins with a vowel sound, use an; if it begins with a consonant sound, use an.

       Words like fellow and kayak and chair and really begin with consonants that have consonant sounds, so they obviously take a when they need an indefinite article:
     a fellow     a kayak     a chair     a really nice neighborhood
       In fact, most nouns and adjectives are like this. Most beginning consonants have consonant sounds, and most beginning vowels have vowel sounds, so most of the time it's easy to assign the right indefinite article. Like most things in this world, though, it ain't necessarily so.

        A word that begins with a silent h, like honor, heir, hour, or homage, is pronounced beginning with the vowel sound that follows. Hence, even though it begins with a consonant, it takes an, not a, as its article:
     an honor to be nominated       an hour-long show

       Sometimes, a vowel has a consonant sound at the beginning of a word. Examples: the beginning e sounds like a y in eulogy, and the o in one is sounded out like a w. So, even though each of these words begins with a vowel, it needs a, not an, as its article because the sound is a consonant sound:
a eulogy that inspired everyone       a one-night stand

        A straight abbreviation, which always has all of its letters pronounced individually, takes its article according to the sound of the first letter. If the first letter of the abbreviation is individually pronounced with a beginning vowel sound, it takes an; if the first letter is pronounced with a beginning consonant sound, it takes a:
     an ACLU lawyer
     an EPA regulation
     an IRS form
     an FBI agent ( f is pronounced with a beginning vowel sound, ef)

      a PTA meeting
      a UPS driver (u is pronounced like you, with a beginning y consonant sound)

       All of the above examples are straight abbreviations, meaning you speak every letter individually: F-B-I, I-R-S, like that. An abbreviation that's spoken as a word--called an acronym--is treated like a word. And this can make a difference in your selection of article.
       For instance, if FEMA were treated as a straight abbreviation, its individual letters would be pronounced and it would take an as its article because the initial sound would be the vowel sound (ef) of an individually pronounced letter f:
     an FEMA (each letter pronounced separately: ef ee em a) announcement
       But FEMA isn't treated as an abbreviation, is it? It's universally treated as an acronym--it's pronounced as a word: FEMA (FEE-muh). Now, when f functions as the first letter of a word it has the firm consonant sound, so, while FEMA would take an if it were treated as an abbreviation, which it isn't, FEMA the word, which is the way it's always used, takes a as its article:
     a FEMA announcement.
       Another example: MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) would take an as its article if it were pronounced as a straight abbreviation because the m would be individually pronounced with the beginning vowel sound (em). It is, however, always spoken as a word, so the m has the consonant sound and a is the article:
     a MASH unit, not an em-a-ess-h  unit

       We can't get out of a discussion of indefinite articles without talking about the use of an with certain words that begin with h, such as historic, hotel, and horrific. Once in a while you  see or hear someone write or say something like "an historic event" or "an horrific accident," and you probably wonder if that's correct. The answer is no, it's not any longer considered correct in any usage at any level of writing, but there's a pretty simple reason why people still say this here and there that you may not have heard before. So, now you can know the real reason why.
       Well into the 20th century, it was fairly common for English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic to use a variant pronunciation of these and similar words, i.e., with a silent h: horrible was pronounced orrible, historical was istorical, etc. This was an allowance for their pronunciations in their original French; when these words came into English and the h was pronounced, the old French silent-h pronunciations came along for the ride as an optional variant. Because these silent-h pronunciations began with a vowel sound, the article an was used . . . and was appropriate.
     an historical document (an istorical document)
     an horrible sight (an orrible sight)
As these variant pronunciations, which have never had much use in English except to muddy the waters, were dropped from standard English usage, some recalcitrant individuals kept on saying them that way. A sparse handful have kept right on saying them that way to this day. They see them in old books, or they hear some crusty old grammarian say them, or they find them on the beach in a message in a bottle, and they adopt them. Pay them no mind. Don't use an with these words--they begin with a consonant sound, the quick guttural exhalation while blocking the larynx somewhat with the trunk of the tongue deep in the throat--the h sound--and require a, and no reputable guide will tell you different. If you find one that does, remember to mock it publicly.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, as always, especially since it agrees with my own usage. ;)

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes


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