Using the Articles “A” and “An”

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  • Nancy Tuten

    20 January 2018

    Using the Articles “A” and “An”

    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:

    • an umbrella
    • a unicorn
    • a fly
    • an FBI agent
    • 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 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


    1. a medical doctor
    2. an M.D. (we hear em)
    3. a State Department of Education initiative
    4. an SDE initiative
    5. an honor (silent h)
    6. an heir (silent h)
    7. a history professor
    8. a historical monument (per Chicago but not per Webster’s)

    Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2018