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Articles: A versus An

Summary:

This short handout deals with which article to use before a noun -- "a" or "an."

How do you know when to use the indefinite articles?

The choice of article is based upon the phonetic (sound) quality of the first letter in a word, not on the orthographic (written) representation of the letter. If the first letter makes a vowel-type sound, you use "an"; if the first letter would make a consonant-type sound, you use "a." However, even if you follow these basic rules when deciding to use "a" or "an," remember that there are some exceptions to these rules.

"A" goes before words that begin with consonants.

  • a cat
  • a dog
  • a purple onion
  • a buffalo
  • a big apple

"An" goes before words that begin with vowels:

  • an apricot
  • an egg
  • an Indian
  • an orbit
  • an uprising

Exceptions

Use "an" before a slient or unsounded "h." Because the "h" does not have any phonetic representation or audible sound, the sound that follows the article is a vowel; consequently, "an" is used.

  • an honorable peace
  • an honest error

When "u" makes the same sound as the "y" in "you," or "o" makes the same sound as "w" in "won," then a is used. The word-initial "y" sound ("unicorn") is a glide [j] phonetically, which has consonantal properties; consequently, it is treated as a consonant, requiring "a."

  • a union
  • a united front
  • a unicorn
  • a used napkin
  • a U.S. ship
  • a one-legged man

For more information, please visit the OWL's page on using articles.

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Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.