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When to use ‘a’ or ‘an’

Posted on | January 14, 2008 | 14 Comments

We are geeks. We’re capable of banging out instructions to computers in a plethora of languages. What escapes most of us is simple English. To our defense, English is not so simple.

I’ve been editing some documentation submitted for a few of the free software packages that I manage. I am compelled to preach to my fellow geeks the correct use of ‘a’ or ‘an’ in a sentence.

If the word coming after ‘a’ or ‘an’ starts with a vowel, use ‘an’. Otherwise, use ‘a’, simple, eh? Lets see some examples:

He was run over by an ostrich.
He was run over by a truck.

See? Easy :)


14 Responses to “When to use ‘a’ or ‘an’”

  1. tinkertim
    January 24th, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

    Note, if the ‘sometimes Y’ rule is invoked, its still ‘a’. For instance:

    He was run over by a yetti.

    In the sense of when to use ‘a’ or ‘an’, ‘y’ does not qualify as a vowel. Thanks for the emails, however :)


  2. just joe
    February 4th, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

    what about an honor, an hour

  3. visakh
    March 22nd, 2008 @ 6:28 am

    An “an” should precede a word that SOUND like a vowel.

    h is silent in hour. So its an hour.

  4. stn
    September 17th, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

    Abbreviations throw up some strange stuff with the use of ‘a’ or ‘an’. For example:- “I need a Non-Conformance Report(NCR)”, becomes when abbreviated, “I need an NCR”. Can you explain this, or is this the correct use of ‘an’ ?

  5. tinkertim
    September 18th, 2008 @ 10:57 am

    @stn: That’s a corner case. If the word following (a or an) starts with a vowel or is pronounced with a vowel sound .. you should use ‘an’.

    So ‘I need a NCR’ would be correct. However, NCR is very close to a vowel sound, since N is phonetically “en”.

    In cases like that, its probably best to just avoid the acronym. For instance:

    I need a non conformance report (NCR) , vs just saying I need a/an NCR.

  6. agreaterdarkness
    October 13th, 2008 @ 10:06 am

    Cool. Thanks . I didnt know this before.

  7. feri
    January 11th, 2009 @ 3:25 am

    I’d like to elaborate with a few more examples regarding vowel sounds

    The following are correct:

    a user (“yoo-zer”) an MOT (“am-oh-tee”) // looks odd a eulogy (“yoo-loh-gee”) // looks odd

    Certainly not always obvious, imho.

  8. james
    March 14th, 2009 @ 1:47 am

    I just came across a british headline that said “an hillarious appearance”. I have heard an used with a consonant in a number of instances by the british. What gives?

  9. Weiss
    May 19th, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

    The usage actually isn’t as simple as it’s made to sound. There are exceptions to the rules. For instance, I was taught that whether or not to use “a” or “an” depends on the noun it precedes, even if there is an adjective before the noun.


    a orange car an gray elephant

    This may not be correct, since I’ve often questioned it myself, but it’s what I was taught, so I’ve generally stuck to it. The exception being that, when the noun is proper and the ‘adjective’ is actually part of the name, you use a or an accordingly.

    The justification for this rule was given as follows: The words ‘a’ and ‘an’ modify a noun, and cannot modify an adjective. As such, which one is used depends on the noun that it precedes.

  10. Sheelagh Barnett-Hunt
    July 15th, 2009 @ 1:43 am

    Which sentence is correct?

    Try a Arnold Palmer Iced tea.

    Try an Arnold Palmer iced tea.

    Try Arnold Palmer iced tea.

  11. Sheelagh Barnett-Hunt
    July 15th, 2009 @ 3:50 am

    Appreciate help with this. Thanks, Sheelagh

  12. DJnGeorgia
    August 26th, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

    While editing a recorded announcement, the voice over said, “…this lady is “a” MS patient. This follows the rules of “a” and “an”, but I believe it is to be “an” instead. Any comments?

  13. tinkertim
    August 29th, 2009 @ 5:08 pm
    While editing a recorded announcement, the voice over said, “…this lady is “a” MS patient. This follows the rules of “a” and “an”, but I believe it is to be “an” instead. Any comments?

    The consensus seems to be to eliminate the abbreviation in cases such as that. It would be better to say “The lady is a muscular distrophy patient”, which agrees with the rule and the tounge.

  14. Brittany
    November 10th, 2009 @ 1:13 pm
    1. MS is multiple sclerosis; muscular dystrophy is abbreviated MD.

    2. It would be ‘an’ MS patient, because it is pronounced ‘em’ with a starting vowel sound. You don’t have to avoid abbreviations.

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