Common Grammar Mistakes: A versus An.

A or an?

This question came up earlier this week and, well, here I am to save the day. Most have learned that you use a before words that start with consonants and use an before words that start with vowels. However, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

The rule actually is that you use a before words that start with a consonant sound and an before words that start with a vowel sound.

The question at hand was actually regarding the word “hour” and whether an hour is correct as opposed to a hour. To answer this question specifically, an hour is correct, because hour starts with a vowel sound.

Words that begin with h or u are most confusing because these words can start with either vowel sounds or consonant sounds, regardless of whether a consonant or vowel is actually being used. For example, it is a historic moment because historic starts with an h sound (the h in “h-h-hey!”) but he’s an honorable fellow because honorable starts with an o sound. Similarly, it is a Utopian idea (“you”-topian”), but an unfair world (“uh-nfair”).

The letters o and m can be tricky too, for the same reasons. For example, you would use aif you were to say, “She has a one-track mind,” because one-track starts with a w sound. Similarly, “She has an MBA, but chooses to work as a missionary.”

One complication is when words are pronounced differently in British and American English. For example, the word for a certain kind of plant is pronounced “’erb” in American English and “herb” in British English. So the proper form in America is an (h)erb, and the proper form in Britain is a herb. In the rare cases where this is a problem, use the form that will be expected in the vernacular of the country in question.

I know this seems confusing –I’m sure way more confusing than originally thought!– but, remember: it is the sound that governs whether you use a or an, not the actual first letter of the word.

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