Grammar & Word Confusion: A and An

Posted March 14, 2012 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Grammar Explanations, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 13 October 2017

Indefinite: In grammar, an indefinite article does not point to a specific person, thing, time, or anything else.

Contrary to what we learned as kids, “a” is not automatically used before words beginning with a consonant while “an” does not automatically precede words beginning with a vowel.

The critical determination as to which indefinite article to use is the initial sound of the word and not the initial letter (English Word Information).

Keep in mind that the self-editing pages will probably never be complete. There’s always a new term someone, somewhere, uses to describe a part of grammar. Or there’s a better way to explain it, so it makes quicker and/or better sense, so I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone…

Grammar Explanations and Word Confusions sometimes…

…involve the same words as it does in here in this post on “A and An”. Whereas a Word Confusion is a pair (or more) of words that are confused spelling-wise with each other, a Grammar Explanation may jump in because of the confusion involved in how the words are used within the structural rules and principles of English.

Sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. Heck, there’s always a better way to explain it, so if you have an idea or suggestion that makes quicker and/or better sense, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone…as well as questions on issues with which you are frustrated. If you’d like to track it, bookmark this page. And consider sharing this Grammar Explanation with friends by tweeting it.

A An

A camel standing in profile

“Camelus dromedarius in Singapore Zoo” is Daderot’s own work and is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A camel at the Singapore Zoo


An ostrich standing in profile in a wide plain

“An Ostrich in the Crater” by Chad Rosenthal from Jerusalem, Israel, is under the CC BY 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

Part of Grammar:
Abbreviation 1, 9;
Indefinite article (also referred to as a determiner) 4;
Noun
Plural for noun: an;
Prefix 1, 3, 5, 6; Suffix 1, 7, 8;
Indefinite article (also referred to as a determiner); Prefix 3, 11; Proper Noun; Suffix 12
Grammar Usage: Use a before words that begin with a consonant sound.

Acronyms require a bit more attention, as the acronym may begin with a consonant but be pronounced as if it were a vowel or the acronym may be pronounced like a word or by its initials. Pay particular attention to the hs.

Grammar Usage: Use an before words that begin with a vowel sound.

Most acronyms and words beginning with an “h” and pronounced with an “aitch” sound will use “an” in front of it.

Grammar Examples:
a HAZ-MAT
a Hz
a HomePNA
a HEPNET

This is a NATO operation

That’s a NAK

a 404 message
a 303 area code

an HCL
an HDTV
an HTTP

That’s an NFS

Ya got an NiCD?

That’s an NIS system.

an 800 number
an 11 on a ten scale

an @ sign

Rule: When “eu” sounds like “yer” or “y” Rule: When “F” sounds like “eff”
a Europe
a European
a eulogy
an f
Rule: When “ou” sounds like “wah”, “wan”, or “wee” (Montessori) Rule: When “h” sounds like “oh” or “ow” or has a silent “h”
a Quija board
a ouananiche (pronounced wan-an-ish)
a one-man
an hotel
an hour and a half
an honor
an honest
an heir
an honorable
Rule: When “u” sounds like “yoo” Rule: When “L” sounds like “el”
a unicorn
a uniform
a unique
a union
a use
a united
a U-boat
an L-plate
LED
Rule: When “m” sounds like “em”
an M&M
an MD
Rule: When “n” sounds like “en”
an Ndebele
NIS
Rule: When “s” sounds like “es”
an S/N
an s-shape
Rule: When “x” sounds like “ex”
an x-ray
Grammar Definitions:
Abbreviation:
[In travel timetables] Arrives

[In combination; in units of measurement] atto-, denotes a factor of 10−18

[British; with reference to sporting fixtures] Away

[Used before a date] Before 2

[Physics; symbol] Acceleration

[Used in describing play in bridge and other card games] Ace

Ångstrom(s)

Answer

[In personal ads] Asian

A dry cell battery size

[British; informal] A level

Ampere(s) 9

Indefinite Article:
The form used before words beginning with a consonant sound.


Used when referring to someone or something for the first time in a text or conversation

  • Used with units of measurement to mean one such unit
  • [With negative] One single, any
  • Used when mentioning the name of someone not known to the speaker
  • Someone like (the name specified)

Used to indicate membership of a class of people or things
Used when expressing rates or ratios

  • In
  • To
  • For each
  • Per

Noun:
The first letter of the alphabet

  • Denoting the first in a set of items, categories, sizes, etc.
  • Denoting the first of two or more hypothetical people or things
  • The highest class of academic mark
  • [Chess] Denoting the first file from the left, as viewed from white’s side of the board
  • The first fixed quantity in an algebraic expression
  • The human blood type (in the ABO system)
  • A shape like that of a capital A
  • [Music] The sixth note of the diatonic scale of C major
    • A key based on a scale with A as its keynote

Prefix:
To 1

Toward

  • In a specified state or manner
  • In the process of an activity
  • On
  • In

Variant spelling of ad- assimilated before sc, sp, and st

Not 3

Without

Of 5, also informal 8

Utterly 6

Suffix:
Forming plural nouns 1


From Greek or Latin neuter plurals corresponding to a singular in -um or -on

In names (often from modern Latin) of zoological groups


Forming 7:


Ancient or Latinized modern names of animals and plants

Names of oxides

Geographical names

Ancient or Latinized modern feminine forenames

Nouns from Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish

[Informal] Have 8

To

Indefinite Article:
The form used before words beginning with a vowel sound.


Used when referring to someone or something for the first time in a text or conversation

  • Someone like (the name specified)
  • Used to indicate membership of a class of people or things

Prefix:
Variant spelling of a- before a vowel 3

Variant spelling of ad- assimilated before n 11

Variant spelling of ana- shortened before a vowel 11

Proper Noun:
A Sumerian god

Suffix:
The form used in creating adjectives and nouns, especially from:

  • Names of places
  • Names of systems
  • Names of zoological classes or orders
  • Names of founders or leaders when referring to them as sources
  • [Chemistry] Forming names of organic compounds, chiefly polysaccharides
Sentence Examples:
Abbreviation:
Penzance a 0915.

Derived from the Danish word atten, α means eighteen.

March 15 Sheffield United (a).

a1200

That hottie is a Leo.

I’m an A looking for a partner interested in walks on the beach and a glass of wine.

An alternating current of one A is defined to be one which produces the same heat in a second in a wire as the unit continuous current defined as above to be one ampere (Your Dictionary.com).

An Å is used to measure the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation or distances between atoms.

Indefinite Article:
A man came out of the room.

It has been a joy to have you.

We need people with a knowledge of languages.

Gimme a hundred.

It should only take a quarter of an hour.

I simply haven’t a thing to wear.

A Mr. Smith telephoned.

You’re no better than a Hitler.

He is a lawyer.

This car is a BMW.

She was typing 60 words a minute.

We need people with a knowledge of languages.

It cost as much as eight dollars a dozen.

Indefinite Article:
An ant came out of its hole.

It has been an honor to have you.

You’re no better than an idiot.

He is an editor.

This car is an Audi.

Acronyms
This is a NATO operation

That’s a NAK

That’s an NFS

Ya got an NiCD?

That’s an NIS system.

Other acronyms and words beginning with “h” and sounding like it will use “a”:

  • a HAZ-MAT
  • a Hz
  • a HomePNA
  • a HEPNET
Most acronyms and words beginning with an “h” starting with an “aitch” sound and will use “an” in front of it:

  • an HCL
  • an HDTV
  • an HTTP

The same is true for other vowel-starting acronyms and words when:

  • “Eu” sounds like “yer” or “y”
    • a Europe
    • a European
    • a eulogy
  • “Ou” sounds like “wah”, “wan”, or “wee” Montessori
    • a Quija board
    • a ouananiche (pronounced wan-an-ish)
    • a one-man
  • “U” sounds like “yoo”
    • a unicorn
    • a uniform
    • a unique
    • a union
    • a use
    • a united
    • a U-boat
The same is true for other consonant-starting acronyms and words when:

  • “F” sounds like “eff”
    • an f
  • “H” sounds like “oh” or “ow” or has a silent “h”
    • an hotel
    • an hour and a half
    • an honor
    • an honest
    • an heir
    • an honorable
  • “L” sounds like “el”
    • an L-plate
    • LED
  • “M” sounds like “em”
    • an M&M
    • an MD
  • “N” sounds like “en”
    • an Ndebele
    • NIS
  • “S” sounds like “es”
    • an S/N
    • an s-shape
  • “X” sounds like “ex”
    • an x-ray
Noun:
(Using a as a noun)


A is for apple.

Let’s suppose that a B had killed F.

The Gringmuth notation for White’s side of a chess board is an A.

32 = 2a + 8

His blood type is A.

Mom! Mom! I got an A.

What about an A-frame?

The key signature for the A major scale includes three sharps.

Proper Noun:
(Using an as a noun — and this was a stretch!)


An is a Sumerian sky god.
Prefix:
He pulled him aside for a quiet chat.

All ashore who’s going ashore.

Dude, I was asleep.

Mother read the story aloud to us all.

Daddy’s gone a-hunting.

The game’s a-foot.

Nowadays you young whippersnappers just up and go.

She ascended those stairs like an angel.

I aspire to greater things in my career.

Whoa, that lemonade is quite astringent.

I’m not an atheist but an agnostic.

It’s an atypical result.

She raised those questions anew.

He was abashed when she turned him down.

Prefix:
If you have anemia, you should eat foods rich in iron.

We need an anechoic chamber to record this.

The Battle of Austerlitz was an annihilation.

Any documentation should be annotated with explanatory notes.

He had an aneurysm. No one saw it coming.

Suffix:
There are addenda at the end of the book.

They are truly a phenomena.

Insectivora have long been recognized as being amongst the most primitive of placental mammals (Palaeos).

I thought I’d plant primulas in that bend of the garden.

When warmed with baryta water it gives uvitic acid (Your Dictionary.com).

We lived in Africa for two years.

“Oh, Lydia, oh, Lydia. Oh, have you seen Lydia. Lydia the tattooed lady.”

She must have a duenna with her at all times.

A stanza is a group of lines in a poem.

Suffix:
You know what those Ohioans are like.

I love that movie The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.

No, Henry isn’t an Anglican or a Presbyterian.

Mary loves to eat crustaceans.

Chomskyan linguistics challenges structural linguistics and introduces transformational grammar.

Dextran is used medicinally as an antithrombotic to reduce blood viscosity and as a volume expander in hypovolaemia.

History of the Word:
1 Old English as an unstressed form of on.

2 From the Latin ante.

3 From the Greek.

4 Middle English in a weak form of Old English ān meaning one.

5 Unstressed form of of.

6 Anglo-Norman French and corresponding to the Old French e- or es-, from the Latin ex.

7 Represents a Greek, Latin, or Romance feminine singular.

8 Represents a casual pronunciation.

9 Late 19th century, named after A. M. Ampère.

10 Middle English as a weak form of Old English ān meaning one.

11 From the Greek ana meaning up.

12 Based on the Latin -(i)anus and -aeus adjectival endings.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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