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04/30/01: Using the Articles “A” and “An”

Thanks to all of you who have sent in tip suggestions. We are working our way through the list!

One subscriber wrote to ask about the proper use of the articles a and an. Like many of us, he thought he had been taught simply to put a in front of consonants and an in front of vowels. Rather than looking at the actual letter with which a noun begins, however, we should consider the sound we hear at the beginning of it.

The article used in each of the following phrases is correct:

1. an umbrella

2. a unicorn

3. a fly

4. an FBI agent

5. a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent

In phrase 1, we use an because the word umbrella starts with a vowel sound. The word unicorn in phrase 2, on the other hand, begins with the long u sound, which we pronounce “yew.” Thus, we hear a consonant sound even though we see a vowel.

The same criteria apply to the phrases “a fly” and “an FBI agent.” In the former, we hear the consonant sound f, while in the latter the abbreviation starts with the short e vowel sound. What we hear is “eff.” When we spell out the words denoted by the abbreviation "FBI," as in number 5, then we hear the consonant sound f and must use the article a.

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition) points out that often when a word starting with the letter h begins with an unstressed or weakly stressed syllable, writers tend to use an when speaking. Many people would say, for example, “an historian” rather than “a historian.” The Chicago Manual of Style, however, ignores the issue of stressed syllables and advocates the use of a since the word historian (as well as similar words, like historical) starts with the consonant sound “h.” We would never say “an hysterectomy” or “an horse.” If a word starts with a silent letter, as in the words "herb" and "heir," we hear the vowel sound and should use "an."

TEST YOURSELF: Which article, a or an, is more appropriate in the following blanks?

1. ___ medical doctor

2. ___ M.D.

3. ___ State Department of Education initiative

4. ___ SDE initiative [kill the period here]

5. ___ honor

6. ___ heir

7. ___ history professor

8. ___ historical monument


The test sentences:

1. In the attic we found old thin paper cutouts we used to play with when we were children.

2. The poster depicted a brown-haired blue-eyed child wearing a red denim shirt.

3. For breakfast we ate two oversized blueberry muffins.

4. We bought two dozen boxes of mouth-watering peanut butter Girl Scout cookies.

The answers:

1. old, thin paper cutouts

2.brown-haired, blue-eyed child [no comma between red and denim]

3. no commas*

4. no commas*

*In sentences 3 and 4, one might argue that the adjectives could be reversed and still sound acceptable (“blueberry oversized muffins,” “Girl Scout peanut butter cookies”). But when we apply the second test and place the word and between them, we hear that they are not coordinate adjectives. It would sound odd to say, for example, “oversized and blueberry muffins” or “peanut butter and Girl Scout cookies.” Always be sure that a pair of adjectives passes both tests to determine if they are coordinate.

One final note: Remember also that when more than two adjectives appear in a noun phrase, we consider them only two at a time (“mouth-watering and peanut butter”? “peanut butter and Girl Scout”?). Sometimes two of the adjectives will be coordinate while the others will not. Consider, for example, the phrase “mean, old town drunk.” While "mean" and "old" are coordinate, "old" and "town" are not. We could say “old, mean town drunk” or “mean and old town drunk,” but we could not say “mean town old drunk” or “mean, old and town drunk.”

Copyright 2001 Get It Write

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