Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

It's Not Unusual

Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copyediting newsletter, offers useful tips to copy editors and anyone else who prizes clear and orderly writing. Here she looks at why a seemingly simple rule of English, whether to use a or an as an indefinite article, can cause confusion.

When we are taught how to use the indefinite articles (a and an) in writing, many of us are told that a goes before a word that begins with a consonant and an goes before a word that begins with a vowel.

A single, crucial word is missing from that rule of thumb: sound. Some words that begin with a letter that usually symbolizes a vowel nevertheless do not begin with a vowel sound, and only those that do begin with a vowel sound are preceded by an. If teachers remembered to add (or emphasize) the component of sound, perhaps fewer people would be confused by the seemingly inconsistent treatment of words that begin with the same letter but not the same phoneme.

As it is, however, I seem to get three or four queries about this point every year, and last week came the fourth of 2009, in reference to usual and unusual. Why, the writer asked me, did we use a with usual and an with unusual? After all, the words both start with the letter u.

The answer is in the tail end of the list of vowels you memorized as a child: "A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y and W." Not "always Y and W." If you say the word usual aloud, you'll hear that it begins with a "yuh" sound that leads into the vowel ("oo"). That's the sound of the letter y in its consonant form (as opposed to, say, the "ee" sound of y at the end of the word party). So even though the word usual begins with a letter that usually represents a vowel sound, the sound we make when we say it is a consonant sound.

Here are some examples of how the use of a or an is dictated by the character of the initial sound of the word that follows the article:

Which of the following is not a usual ingredient of mayonnaise?
That's an unusual choice of gift.
That's a rather unusual gift.

Notice that a is used when the word rather, which starts with a consonant, separates the article from unusual, but an is used when the article directly precedes unusual.

The classic reason given for the difference in the use of a and an is that it's not easy to say two vowel sounds with a gap between them (e.g., "a unusual gift"). To distinguish between a and the word that follows it, you would need to use a glottal stop, or a near-stop — a break in the voicing of the kind that you hear if you say "Uh oh!" Far easier to insert an n, a consonant that is voiced at the front of the mouth, as a connecting sound between the two vowels.

That's the theory, anyway. In practice, I'm not sure the n insertion is as instinctive as all that. Witness the way children have to be taught not to say "a apple." And look at "Uh oh!" too: we seem to have no problem with using a glottal stop in this expression.

Just to complicate the picture further: some English speakers insert a connecting r between words (the idear of it) or syllables (That's a nice drawring) when the first word or syllable ends with a vowel sound and the second begins with one. Apart from occasions when dialect is represented in print, we don't write this interposed r the way we write an versus a.

But in the case of a and an, we do make a distinction in both the spoken and the written language — one that is governed by sound, not by spelling.

Wendalyn Nichols is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and a commissioning editor of dictionaries for Cambridge University Press. She began as a freelance researcher, writer, and editor, then became a lexicographer and editor with the Longman Group. For four years she was the editorial director of Random House Reference and Information Publishing. She lives in New York, New York with her husband and young daughter. Follow her on Twitter @WendalynNichols and @Copyediting.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 22nd 2009, 9:16 AM
Comment by: David B. (Wallingford, CT)
Two comments...

First, does the same “sound” rule apply to words and acronyms that begin with a consonant but start with a vowel sound? For instance, in my profession we regularly use the acronym NTP for "Notice To Proceed”, which we commonly sound out as “en-tee-pee”. When I put this to writing I use “an NTP”, not “a NTP”. Similarly, I would write "an honorable", not "a honorable", because that is how one would speak it.

Second, where in the United States do we teach our children that "W" is sometimes a vowel? I recall being taught this rule as a guide to spelling in that every word must contain at least one vowel. I cannot think of one word that is spelled with "w" being the only vowel, as can be accomplished with "y". If anyone knows of one, please let me know so that I can use it playing scrabble an bananagrams.
Tuesday December 22nd 2009, 10:06 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Anonymous: I'd say you're handling a/an before abbreviations correctly. So if you pronounce FAQ as an acronym ("fack"), then it's "a FAQ," but if you pronounce it as an initialism ("eff ay queue"), then it's "an FAQ."

The Welsh word cwm (defined by the VT as 'a steep-walled semicircular basin in a mountain') is in most major English dictionaries. Another W-only Welsh word found in some dictionaries (including the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary!) is crwth, 'an ancient Celtic stringed instrument.'
Tuesday December 22nd 2009, 2:39 PM
Comment by: Patricia M. (Clermont, FL)
Speaking of the use of "a" or "n" before words beginning with the letter "h". I was always taught that the
proper usage of the indefinite article before the word, "historic" was "an". Lately, however, I have noticed
that presumably well-educated people, including politicians and news commentators, have been using "a" instead.
Have the rules changed? Somehow I just can't bring myself to say "a historic event", "a historic home", etc.
nor can I get used to hearing it said without wincing a bit. Does anyone else out there feel this way ?
Tuesday December 22nd 2009, 4:03 PM
Comment by: Jacqueline M. (Ottawa Canada)
I have never understood why 'an' was sometimes used before 'history'. I checked with several dictionaries and all of them indicated that the "h" is pronounced. Therefore, there is no need for 'an'. According to Fowler's Modern English Usage,(revised edition 1965)"...'an'was formerly used before unaccented syllables beginning with "h"... But now that the "h" in such words is pronounced, the distinction has become anomalous and will no doubt disappear". We still say an hour of course because the "h" is not pronouced in this word..
Tuesday December 22nd 2009, 4:49 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Ben, I hate to quibble, but shouldn't the rule be adjusted for age/experience? The 'w' as a vowel seems to be a Welsh feature, rather than English.

If we are teaching spelling, probably to beginners, why would we complicate life with a word like cwm? When it comes up, the appearance will be strange enough to elicit some comments and then an explanation. That might lead to interest in quirks in other languages than our own, and the discovery then that a 'u' need not always follow a 'q'.

The rule for English spelling would seem to end at the 'Y' -- unless Vanna has it really wrong! (giggle) Or unless someone can think of a word that has 'w' as a vowel, all by itself.

How does the 'w' figure in the word 'vowel'? Does that 'ow' make a diphthong and therefore the 'w' is a vowel?

As I've typed that word, I've seen how strange it might be!

And on a side note, in French, isn't the initial 'o' sounding like a 'w'? I know my husband still has trouble with the word 'owl'.
Wednesday December 23rd 2009, 12:48 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Jane: It's true, the Welsh loanwords cwm and crwth aren't the most compelling examples of w's occasional role as a vowel in English, though they are good to know for Scrabble! The diphthongs are indeed more relevant: in words like how and know, w represents the "glide" or "semivowel" that follows the vowel nucleus -- just as the y does in words like day or boy.
Wednesday December 23rd 2009, 8:34 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
and so how are "cwm" and "crwth" pronounced by English speakers (specifically, American, ex-Chicago, but Sf Bay Area for last 25+ years)?
Wednesday December 23rd 2009, 9:09 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Cwm is "koom" (rhymes with "bloom"), and crwth is "krooth" (rhymes with "youth").

And if you're ever visiting Wales, be sure to stop by Cwmcrwth Farm!
Thursday December 24th 2009, 1:36 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
As a fan of Ellen Peters (Edith Parteger), and a proud possessor of some of her books on tape (The Heaven Tree Trilogy), I've had some exposure to the words and the lilt of the speech.

I think the Welsh would be the spelling champions of the whole world -- in addition to singing!

But the appearance of the words is awful! Or maybe awesome?
Thursday December 24th 2009, 2:42 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
Patricia M. from Florida, I welcome a kindred soul on this topic. I live in California, in the northern CA western foothills of the Sierra. Specifically Murphys. This town was founded by two brothers know as "the Murphys" and so we are today, Murphys. Various towns around us were once gold mining spots and many continue to feature their historic roots of goldmining. I have occasion to write in that regard and have always used "an historic church" or an historic event and so on. I have noted that this seems to be like shouting from the rooftops, "I am an old lady" because young folks don't use that rule about a/an that I learned in school lo these many years ago.I adopt some grammatical changes because they make better sense than the old rules. But I go to the mat over some changes of our language and "an historic church" is what I will write.
Friday December 25th 2009, 11:56 AM
Comment by: Peter E. (Philadelphia, PA)
Ben --
Your personal view of a/an use before history, historical, historic? Seems to me we remain in much of a muddle with this one.
Thanks,
Peter
Friday December 25th 2009, 2:48 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I am more inclined to sound out the 'h' in 'history' or 'hiss' and thus use the 'a' only for those.

However, for 'historic' or 'historical' I lessen the sound to an 'i'; therefore, I use the 'an' for those words.

I think we go by the sound we hear ourselves saying for these words. I am not enough in contact with younger people now to know what is said. Typing those words might be what is causing change if change there be. If your mind doesn't hear anything, you might just follow the rules about vowels and 'a' and 'an'.

My hearing automatically clicks in, but perhaps that has changed as people are reading aloud less and less. Or perhaps radio has changed and those of us who grew up with stories on the radio might have more finely tuned ears.
Friday December 25th 2009, 5:07 PM
Comment by: Jacqueline M. (Ottawa Canada)
Hey, I'm an old lady too - but only 77 - maybe that's not old enough to drop the "h" sound in 'history etc. so that I still use 'an', rather than 'a' as the indefinite article.
Saturday December 26th 2009, 7:38 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
Thanks for all comments re the a/an discussion. I, too, would not say "an history lesson" but an historic event or an historic church feels and sounds right to me. Maybe that is because it is MY way of hearing these phrases. When I was in the classroom as a student in the '40's, Rules were Rules.Any infraction brought out the teacher's little red pen, so we did things her way. I was in shock when my own children wrote papers that were never "graded for spelling or grammar." One son was, still is, a voracious reader and he writes using most of the rules from my day. The others use spell check and grammar check and life goes on. The sun rises every morning here in CA no matter which way we construct our sentences, but I am sure the New York State Regents Board cheers my efforts. Or they would if they ever read any of it.
Saturday December 26th 2009, 9:19 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Hmmm... I'm just a tad younger, and my parents insisted on 'proper' English, (I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, so there was quite a lot to insist not be used!) but so far as I can remember, we pronounced the 'h' in history similarly to the 'h' in 'hip'. I think the term is aspirated. For 'historical', however, we dropped the 'h' and it became 'istorical' thus needing the 'an'.

I guess it boils down to our hearing and usage, unless Ben shows up with a more definite rule.

Come to think of it, I've complicated my own usage. I would say 'an important Historical event', sounding the 'h'.

I need an arbitor myself! (Giggling)
Saturday December 26th 2009, 9:23 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Okay, I've defined it a little more, and I think the situation was covered in the article that began this.

If I say 'historical' in such a way that the 'a' or 'an' is not needed, I say the 'h'. If an indefinite article is needed right before the word, I use 'an'. Sigh!
Sunday December 27th 2009, 3:25 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
Jane B, yes, I guess the rule is in the ear. At my age I'm a tough sell on too much "new thinking" regarding the written word. No doubt having three children go through the CA school system has dulled my reactions, but I still prefer to have less changing of the way we do things with our writing. Yes, we moved away from the stilted form from Merry Olde England, so I imagine we will watch the American form of English slide away. It is joy to me to read Ben's work and see where I still fit in. Or not.
Sunday December 27th 2009, 9:10 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Marion, I did the 'sigh' thing, because I remember when I was teaching how I used to roll my eyes when a student gave, "It sounds better" as a reason for something.

But it 'sounds better' does work for this!

And I'm so glad I taught before all the liberalism regarding rules and regs came in up here in Canada. I don't think the students now get so defined an education as back when more was required of them...

Now, "it sounds better" seems to be a sort of justification for everything! Sigh...

Hey, at least they got through school! Congratulations!
Sunday December 27th 2009, 11:14 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Uh...unusual topic.
Tuesday January 5th 2010, 1:06 PM
Comment by: Jennifer M.
ive always been down with this kind of stuff lol :)

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

The Principal Problem
- 6 Comments
Wendalyn looks at the common confusion of "principal" and "principle."
Proscribe with Caution
- 3 Comments
Some pitfalls in using the word "proscribe."
Fly Away Home
- 10 Comments
Why do we say a baseball player "flied out," not "flew out"?