Determining whether to use “a” versus “an” should not be confusing, but it is.
This week, I had a prolonged discussion with a co-worker about why “an MRI” is correct and “a MRI” is not.
It turns out that many of us were taught the wrong rules for use of the indefinite articles. I remember being told to use “an” when the word preceding it starts with a vowel and to use “a” when the word preceding it starts with a consonant.
The rules actually say to use “an” before any word beginning with a vowel sound and to use “a” before any word beginning with a consonant sound. No matter how the word is spelled, “a” comes before words with a consonant sound, including /y/,/h/, and /w/. Likewise, no matter how it’s spelled, “an” comes before a word with a vowel sound.
Take these examples:
- a unicorn
- a user experience study
- an umbrella
- an uprising
- a hotel
- a historical study
- an heir
- an honor
Here are a couple of example sentences:
“It was quite a sight to watch such a histrionic performance.”
“That is an ugly drawing of a ukulele.”
All of this gets tricky when it comes to abbreviations, symbols, or numbers. But the rule is the same; it depends on how the term is pronounced.
- a URL
- a AAA membership
- an FAQ list
- an MRI
- an NCAA player
- an @ sign
- a #
- an 800 number
- a 90s party
Another example sentence:
“I need a URL in order to create an FAQ page.”
So remember: Cut the confusion and answer the question of “a” versus “an” by listening instead of looking.
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Ragan.com readers, any “a” versus “an” stories to share?
Laura Hale Brockway is medical writer based in Austin, Texas. She is also a regular contributor to PR Daily. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.com.