Saturday, July 27, 2013

choosing a or an as your indefinite article

      Select a or an not by whether the adjective or noun that follows it begins with a consonant or vowel, but whether its beginning sound is that of a consonant or vowel.

     Words like fellow and tall and chair begin with consonants that have consonant sounds, so it's easy to see they take a when they use an indefinite article:
     a fellow    a tall building    a chair
     Similarly, nouns and adjectives beginning with vowels that have vowel sounds clearly need an as the indefinite article:
     an ornament
     an impossible situation

     It's not always this cut-and-dried, though.

     Nouns and adjectives beginning with the hard h sound, including historic, and historical, always take a as their indefinite articles in American English:
     a happy family
     a hippopotamus
     a historic event
  (not an historic event, as you've probably heard or read sometime)
     But one that begins with a silent h, like honor or hourly, is pronounced beginning with the vowel sound that follows the h, so, even though the word 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
An initialism, such as CIA or ACLU, which is spoken by pronouncing its letters individually, takes its article according to the sound of the first letter. If the first letter 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 EPA regulation
     an IRS form
     an FBI agent

     a PTA meeting
     a UPS driver

     An acronym is an abbreviation that is pronounced like a word. And this can make a difference in your selection of article. For instance, if FEMA were treated as an initialism 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 F-E-M-A (ef ee em ay) announcement
     But FEMA isn't an initialism. It's an acronym. It's pronounced as a word, FEMA (FEE-muh), so it takes a as its article:
     a FEMA announcement
     Another example: MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital). If it were an initialism it would be pronounced letter-for-letter and would need an as its article:
     an M-A-S-H (em ay ess aych) unit
     But because it's an acronym and always pronounced as a word (as in sour mash whiskey), a is the article:
     a MASH unit

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