Indefinite articles: a or an?


Let’s talk about indefinite articles, shall we? Specifically, I’d like to address some apparent confusion about when and where to use “a” versus “an.” Think you know this one already? We’ll just see about that.

I have noticed a disturbing uptick in the use of “an” preceding words that start with a long “u.” Okay, you say. So what? Isn’t that correct? Weren’t we taught to always use “an” before vowels and “a” before consonants? Um, no. You weren’t. You were obviously not paying attention if you write headlines such as this one, from America’s Intelligence(?) Wire:

EDITORIAL: An U. Wisconsin student association anomaly

Or how about this one, from a UC Berkeley Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science abstract:

We consider the problem of generating all maximal cliques in an unit disk graph.

Or this one, from a news release that simultaneously bores us senseless and inspires determined confidence in military contractor Boeing:

BSAS currently holds an U. S. Army Special Operations Command contract at Fort Campbell, Ky., providing integrated and life-cycle contractor logistics support to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Products maintained for mission-specific support are the Chinook (Boeing) and Black Hawk (Sikorsky) helicopters.

And finally, a product description from Rubbermaid’s web site:

Brackets come in several styles and add an unique flair to picture displays and collectables.

The one hard-and-fast rule regarding indefinite articles is that you use your ear instead of your eye to determine which one to use. To clarify: words and acronyms such as

unit
unique
U.S.
useful

may begin with a vowel, but the initial sound said vowel makes is that of the consonant “y.”

Don’t believe me? Read the above examples aloud and the grating, Yoko-Ono-like dissonance will drive home just how wrong it is to use “an” in front of a long “u.” Always use “a” before words and acronyms beginning with the long “u.”

Conversely, sometimes it’s correct to use “an” in front of a consonant. No, really! Check it out:

an x-ray
an
s-shaped curve
an
honor killing

The point is, when it comes to indefinite articles, let your ear be your guide.

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