Why Sound Matters: Exploring “A” and “An”

When we’re learning to write, we’re often encouraged to use the indefinite article “a” before words that begin with a consonant, and “an” before words that begin with a vowel. But later in life, when we begin churning out text at a higher level of complexity, it is easy to get tripped up on this basic rule of thumb. Using “a” or “an” incorrectly can distract careful readers and prevent your writing from achieving its potential impact.

Ultimately, writers must pay attention to the sound of the word that comes before an article – and not whether it is a consonant or a vowel. Words that start with a consonant sound should have an “a” before them, and words that start with a vowel need to utilize “an.” A good example of this concept is observable in a word like hour. Hour begins with a consonant, but actually sounds like a vowel when you say it aloud. Therefore, proper grammar dictates that “an” should come before the word hour. For example: “I’ll be there in an hour.”

The letter “h” is one of the most confusing letters when it comes to vowel and consonant sounds because it can sound like it begins with both a vowel and a consonant, depending on the word. That’s why the best way to determine whether your “h” word requires “a” or “an” is to say the word aloud. Take, for example, the word hand. Hand has the sound of the “h” at the beginning, so it would be correct to give someone “a hand.” This is very different from giving someone “an hour,” as we did in the previous example.

Another letter that causes confusion for many people is “o.” The word one sounds like it begins with a “w,” so this word would use “a.” By contrast, an “o” that sounds like an “o” – as in the word open – would have “an” before it in a sentence: “He walked through an open door.”

To complicate matters a little more, let’s consider abbreviations and acronyms. Deciding whether to use “a” or “an” before an acronym requires an understanding of how the acronym is spoken aloud. Is it pronounced letter-by-letter, or, as in NATO’s case, as one word? Having a firm grasp on how to pronounce abbreviations and acronyms will help you to better understand which article should be used in front of the word.

Again, when having doubts about the usage of “a” or “an,” a good rule of thumb is to say a sentence out loud. This will help you to determine which article is correct, and it can also help you to find general grammar mistakes in your writing. Because most writers have more experience speaking English than writing it, it is sometimes easier to uncover grammatical mistakes verbally versus in writing.

In our early education, we learn that grammar is all about learning finite rules; but there are exceptions to every rule, and the use of “a” versus “an” is a perfect example.

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