SKRoberts (skroberts) wrote in fandom_grammar,

When do you use "a" versus "an"?

...with examples from Stargate Atlantis, Sherlock Holmes, Psych and House...

Question: When do you use a versus an?

In school, you may have learned to use the article a before a word beginning with a consonant and an proceeding a word starting with a vowel. It's not quite that straightforward, however. The choice of which article to use is actually based on the phonetic quality, or sound, of the first letter in a word rather than the written representation of the letter. While many sources will tell you upfront that a goes with consonants and an goes with vowels, they'll immediately give you a list of exceptions to the rule, all of which happen to be based on sound. Thus, I suggest you think of it from a completely phonetic perspective.

Basic Rules for Using A and An
Use the article a before a word beginning with a consonant sound.

a delicious flavor
a singular string of evidence

Use the article an before a word beginning with a vowel sound.

an enormous appetite for MREs
an Indian patient

For words starting with H, use a when the H is pronounced...

a helicopter pilot
a hopeful family member

...and use an when the H is silent.

an hour
an honest mistake

Pay close attention to words beginning with U and O. Some words beginning with these letters start with a vowel sound, and some start with a consonant sound.

an unusual gift
a used napkin
an overbearing boss
a one-man detective agency

When dealing with acronyms and abbreviations, choose the article that is most appropriate for the sound of the first letter in the sequence and not for the word that letter represents.

a ZPM-powered city
a DHD malfunction
an SGC soldier
an MRI for a patient

Regional Differences
One complication for usage is when words are pronounced differently in American and British English. For instance, the word herb is pronounced with a hard H in British English and with a silent H in American English. In such cases, follow the rules according to what would be expected from the characters you are writing.

Some accents, such as Cockney, play a large role in usage. Certain accents tend to drop the initial H on words. Similarly, some multisyllabic words beginning with H are pronounced differently according to region and accent. If your character falls into this category, treat these words as you would honor and hour.

Whether you choose to remember the usage of a and an by the initial letters or the phonetics of the word the article proceeds, keep this in mind: only you know how you pronounce words. If you're writing a character with a different accent than yours, carefully observe the character's tendencies toward a and an. Above all else, say it out loud before you write it. Trust your instincts, and you'll rarely go wrong.

Compass Rose Horizons
Fowler's Modern English Usage, Second Edition (Sir Ernest Gowers)
Grammar Girl
Hodges' Harbrace Handbook, Fifteenth Edition (Cheryl Glenn, Robert Keith Miller, and Suzanne Strobeck Webb)
HubPages: Grammar Mishaps
Purdue Online Writing Lab
Scribe Consulting
Tags: !answer, author:skroberts, language:english dialects

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