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When is It Appropriate to Use "an" Instead of "a"?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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In American English, there are several instances where you would use “an” instead of “a” to speak or write correctly. Both “an” and “a” are called indefinite articles because they don't tend to be as specific as other forms of articles like “the.” If you say, “I was talking to a dog,” it’s not quite the same as saying, “ I was talking to the dog.” “I want a sandwich” is equally not as specific as “I want the sandwich you are holding.”

Lots of people are taught the rule that it is important to use “an” instead of “a” when words begin with a vowel. This is not exactly accurate. Some words beginning with a vowel are best proceeded by “a” instead of “an”. Actually the difference lies in how the word sounds, not the letter with which it begins. If the initial sound of the word sounds like a consonant but begins with a vowel, paying attention to that sound can help you decide that words like the following take “an” instead of “a.” Here are some words where it is easy to determine that “an” is the appropriate choice: An apple, an orange, an only child, an Italian, an early start, an eel, an unusual situation.

The vowel sounds produced in the first sound of each word in the above examples are classic vowel sounds, like short A, long O, short I, short E, long E and short U. These words, when they begin with such sounds, will tend to take “an” instead of “a”. Furthermore, words with a silent “h” like “herb” and “heir” often take “an” instead of “a”. In British English, you’ll find a few more words that drop the h sound and take “an” than you will in American English.

There are words that begin with vowels that will take “a” instead of “an”. The long U sound in words like ukulele, usual, useful, actually produces a “y” sound at the beginning comparable to the opening sounds in words like youthful. Though it would seem to make sense to use “an” instead of “a” since these words begin with a vowel, it isn’t just about the letter, but the sound. You would use “a” before ukulele, useful or usual. Furthermore, a few words with an “o” like one and once, make a beginning “W” sound and take an “a.” Examples include: a once in a lifetime opportunity, a useful tool, and a ukulele.

Lastly, you might be using an indefinite article before a number or a letter. Here, be directed by the opening sound of the number or letter. An H, an 8, an O, an A, and an S are correct, as are a 1, a 7, a T, a U, and a 2. Make sure that the opening sound is pure vowel, not a hidden consonant sound, when you plan on using “an” instead of “a”.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon331906 — On Apr 25, 2013

Which word is proper? The name "on" a drivers license or "in" a drivers license?

By anon327264 — On Mar 27, 2013

@anon72603: You would say a European citizen, a Euro coin and so on.

By anon326832 — On Mar 24, 2013

Would you say: "because of an security flaw" or "because of a security flaw"?

By anon292788 — On Sep 21, 2012

Would you say "an officer" or "a officer"?

By amypollick — On Dec 13, 2011

@anon234606: Both sentences are correct, since "apple" and "ape" both start with vowel sounds. "Ape" starts with a long "a" sound, and "apple" takes the short "a." So, "an" is used for both.

One example is the word "use." Now, "use" starts with a vowel, but not a vowel *sound.* So, one would say, "I could find a use for that," rather than "I could find an use for that." Say it out loud and the difference is clear.

By anon234606 — On Dec 13, 2011

Wow. As an English speaker I never knew about this rule. I am still quite confused! Which one is incorrect - "I saw an ape"/"I saw an apple"? Thanks for the help!

By amypollick — On May 26, 2011

@anon180107: It's as much about beginning with a vowel *sound* as a vowel. If you say the letter "L" aloud, it sounds like "ell," which begins with the "e" sound. So, "An LCEF" is correct. Even though I love it and have a degree in it, I'll agree with anyone who says English is an odd language. It surely is.

By anon180107 — On May 25, 2011

I was just instructed "An LCEF" is correct, so how does that apply to any rules. I don't see the connection, I must be right and it is supposed to be "A LCEF."

By anon119689 — On Oct 19, 2010

You wouldn't say "an Applicant Test Service" you would say "the Applicant Test Service test".

By amypollick — On Apr 07, 2010

No, "an Applicant Test Service" would be correct.

By anon75693 — On Apr 07, 2010

What about abbreviations, would you use "an" or "a" in front of it, for instance if I am talking about the ATS test that is held for police officers here in Ontario canada, I would say an ATS test but if it would sound weird if I said an Applicant Test Service.

By anon72603 — On Mar 23, 2010

It's "an easy task" and "an e-learning tool." A word beginning with two vowels will almost never have a consonant sound.

By anon40118 — On Aug 06, 2009

I cannot distinguish between consonant sound and vowel sound. So should we say "a easy task" or "an easy task", "a e-learning tool" or "an e-learning tool"? Sorry I am confused. Please help.

By anon17381 — On Aug 28, 2008

In standard British English, the h at the beginning of "herb" is not silent.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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