Should you use ‘a’ or ‘an’?

When determining which article to use, it’s best to listen, not look. Here’s why the terms can trip up even seasoned communicators—and how you can avoid pitfalls.

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 these 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 a look at 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 this gets tricky when it comes to abbreviations, symbols or numbers. The rule is the same; it depends on how the term is pronounced:

  • a URL
  • a AAA membership (assuming one says it as Triple A)
  • an FAQ list
  • an MRI
  • an NCAA player
  • an @ sign
  • a #
  • an 800 number
  • a ’70s party

Here’s another example sentence:

“I need a URL to create an FAQ page.”

You can cut the confusion and answer the question of “a” versus “an” by listening instead of looking.

Have an “a” versus “an” question? Ask it in the comments below.

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor and a regular contributor to PR Daily. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.

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