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A vs. An - The Indefinitely Mind-Boggling English Rule EzineArticles.com Logo

Articles? Indefinite? Acronyms?

From time-to-time we all need a little reminder about one grammatical rule or another. Even for many native-English speakers, the usage of the indefinite article "a" or "an" is confusing. We can only imagine what it must be like for non-native English speakers. Let's settle this mind-boggling English rule!

What Are Articles?

Articles are words that accompany a noun to indicate the type of reference being made by the noun. In the English language, there are three types of articles: definite, indefinite, and partitive.

  • Definite: The word the indicates that its noun is a particular noun or is an identifiable noun to the listener or reader.
  • Indefinite: The words a and an are used before a singular noun that has a plural form.
  • Partitive: Often used to indicate a mass noun, the word some is the English equivalent to a partitive article (e.g., "Would you like some coffee?").

Can you use articles interchangeably? No. Substituting the for a may change the context and may confuse your readers. Consider the following examples:

  • Give me the glass.
  • Give me a glass.
  • Give me some glass.

A vs. An - Which Is It?

A is used before nouns that begin with consonants, whereas an is used before words that begin with vowels. There are many exceptions, such as using a before a word with the letter u (when pronounced like "you") and the letter o (when pronounced like "one"). And then there's that tricky, silent h.

Even though it's a consonant, that meddling unsounded h is preceded by an (not a) because it's typically followed by a vowel or vowel sound. When the h is pronounced (or what follows the h is pronounced) like a consonant, use a.

For example:

  • an hour
  • a hill
  • an heir
  • a history

Similarly, in the case of an acronyms, a is used before a consonant sound and an is used before a vowel sound. There's the catch! Watch out for acronyms that are pronounced as one word instead of each letter.

For example, sound out the differences of the following. Notice the distinction between the consonant sound and the vowel sound, especially for those acronyms spelled out and those pronounced as one word.

  • an FBI agent (each letter is pronounced)
  • a FAQ page (pronounced as a word)
  • an FAQ page (each letter is pronounced)
  • an HTML tag (each letter is pronounced)
  • a HIPAA regulation (pronounced as a word)

The be all and end all of this grammatical principle is to rely on the pronunciation of the word in concert with the consonant/vowel rule to determine which is appropriate. When all else fails, ask a friend or even us here at EzineArticles - we'll give you a hand!

Do you have any questions about weird English rules? Share it here!

Penny, Managing EditorTo Your Article Writing Success & Passion!
Penny, Managing Editor

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